In preparing for my advanced photography class this fall, I have begun to think about some philosophical questions around photography that we will be talking about. The image above is from a series on some old trucks in the Georgetown neighborhood in Seattle. The series didn’t develop until I started to print the images. So that started the ball rolling with this random pondering of the nature of the photograph as an object. You’ve been warned on the randomness.
If an artist works in stone and creates a sculpture, we don’t look at the finished work and not call it a sculpture. We may not like the resulting work and pass some less than flattering adjectives at it, but there is little doubt in anyones mind that it is in fact a sculpture. The same thing can be said of a painting. While we might seriously judge the quality and skills of a painter, once the paint is applied to the canvas we call it a painting. The same can’t be said for photography.
The act of creating the photograph (click of the shutter as it were) is but a small part of the overall process, and I would contend is not the photograph. Unlike painting or sculpting where the action is the creation of the work, the action of photographing is just merely and act. The creation of the photograph has in fact not happened. There is no object yet. I think many people would argue that the capture of the image is the creation of the photograph, but in many ways that would be like telling the sculpture that they have sculpted when they select the stone. The simple act of clicking the the photograph can’t be the photograph nor more so than picking the stone or tubes of paint.
When shooting film, I could capture 36 images on a roll. If I decided not to process that film and just pulled it out of the camera exposing it to light, I would have destroyed the images (analogous to reformatting the memory card). Would this act of destruction result in there not being a photograph? Could we argue that a photograph was made?The act of capture results in only half the equation required for a photograph. We haven’t seen the photograph as an object so it hasn’t existed as a photograph.
As an aside, I am sure that the act of printing images that were captured and never photographs in the first place would sell for more money than I will ever make as an artist and would capture the imagination of some post-modern art collectors. Still, it wouldn’t be a photograph.
Since the capturing can not solely be the creation of the photograph, then we would have to assume that the photograph has to some how relate to the existence of the print or image in a form that others can see and/or touch. The very nature of this idea makes the photograph something tangible in the world. Whether a collection of zeros and ones, ink on paper, or chemical reaction, the image is embodied as a physical object. This object then holds the meaning and intention of the photographer.
These object holds significance and meaning, because it is something. Each time the object is created by the photographer, it is something unique. Ansel Adams is often times quoted for the negative (capture) being the score and the print is the performance. This concept holds weight as we look at the nature of the photograph. The print is the photograph, not the negative, and certainly not the camera or lens. But the print . No one goes to the symphony to read sheet music. Pays $15 dollars at the movie theater to read the screen play. We are by our nature all about the performance.
When the photographer as artist, which is distinct from photographer, steps behind the camera to create a photograph, they are not seeing just the raw stone in front of them. They are seeing the final sculpture. Decisions on depth of field, lens choice, framing, shutter speed and countless other decisions are made with the intention of creating a photograph. It is this experience, vision and as my friend Michelle Dunn Marsh pointed out repeatability of the photographers skill and vision that allow for the photograph to be successful. It is these skills that make photographer as artist successful in their career path no matter if it is fine-art, editorial, assignment, stock or other. They work for the photograph as an object.
In the end, what does this all mean to the photographer as artist. Does understanding the nature of the photograph as not the capture but rather as the physical manifestation of the work matter. I think it does. It is from the understanding that the creation of a photograph is more than the capture/click event. It is from the realization of our voice, vision or whatever term you like that manifest into the object that we can share meaning, tell stories and build a cohesive collection of work. It moves us as photographer artist from working in the isolation of accidental clicker to finishing real, meaningful and tangible work.