When I first started with photography there was a gap between my pictures and those which inspired me. I used cheap cameras and that was partly the reason for it. I am not saying technical quality equates to a good photograph. That’s a typical beginners idea but I am hardly that. What I’m saying is technical quality is part of the craft. When I got my first good quality camera, I was delighted to see the kind of photographs I’d always wanted but never achieved. Once you make that discovery you move on and don’t think about it. It’s not very interesting. It does however arise in both teaching and conversation.
The point about photography is not the tool but the picture, and it’s not always about technical quality. You cannot however dismiss the latter. There are photographs you enjoy because they are technically beautiful. That is, the beauty is technical. It’s the same with any craft. You see it in photography with medium format film and how it renders detail, colour, light, and tone.
The point can be continued into conceptual debate. For documentary photographers, pictorial effect is subservient to narrative. I was told by one of my MA tutors that I was “taking him for a walk through the Alps” about which he had no interest. It was a problematic part of my degree where I argued my photographs were not merely pictorial but embedded in a philosophical outlook. The link between picture and meaning is highly complex, discussed by well known critics such as Sontag, Barthes, and Stephen Shore.
I saw no reason, and still don’t, why social conditions in Africa had more photographic gravity than my mountain project. That was his particular interest. You’re all engaged photographers, he said, and that’s how the seminar proceeded. Engaged with what? Why be engaged with it, how, with whom, and to what end? It’s like the word progressive. It doesn’t actually mean anything but is used to suggest some form of superiority over others. We all want “progress” but what exactly does that mean, and according to whom?
There’s a strange photographic culture which appears as socially humanitarian but which in reality is about the market. You take pictures which sell in newspapers and similar. You don’t take pictures which don’t. Newspaper gossip is the defining criteria and even basic sociology shows how problematic the media is in that regard. Writer and critic Geoff Dyer gave us a lecture and he suggested photographers are not very clever. I questioned him about that. It’s nice, he said, to make such remarks because it prompts heated discussion.
There’s much to dislike about the contemporary world and what Avital Ronell describes as “the repressed conditions of knowledge” in which we are manipulated and lied to. Her book Stupidity continues the tradition of Socrates, Kant, Nietzsche, Huxley, Orwell, Chomsky, and Christopher Hitchens. It’s not unusual to see outdoor photographers link their work to ecological concerns. I do too, in the widest possible sense.
Chomsky said “not even the most extreme postmodernist can seriously argue that there is no such thing as human nature” and “fundamental to human nature is a kind of instinct for freedom which shows up in creative activities.” You also see it in the mountains. That’s Pen Yr Ole Wen in the distance, the Carneddau behind, the Devil’s Kitchen is below, the sea is beyond.
Near the Glyderau to the Sea
Friday June 19, 2015