The Flash of Recognition (or, Why I Photograph)
I'm a photographer, so naturally one of the things I do on a more or less regular basis is look at the photographs made by other photographers. I'll look at the photographs in Yellowdog, by Deborah Marlin, for instance, and marvel at how she's managed to capture the essential quality of Golden Retriever-ness (I'm very fond of Goldens). Sometimes I look at a photograph and think to myself "Now I see how to handle this sort of problem", or even "Ah, now I know another way to approach this sort of subject."
But every once in a while, I have a photograph pass in front of my eyes, and there's this sort of 20,000 volt high energy flash of recognition. It's not that I recognize the subject ("Oh, look, a photograph of Aunt Betty!") so much as I recognize, in one brilliant stroboscopic flash, what the photographer understood.
For example, after photographing extensively on the Pacific coastline of Oregon and Washington, I had learned quite a lot about how beaches work; how the sand reacts, what stones do to the sand and vice versa, and how water interacts with everything. I learned, in short, part of how a beach is a beach. Then I saw Dick Garrod's excellent book Visual Prayers. And there, part of the way through the book, I turned the page and saw a photograph of a rock partly buried in the sand. There was a resemblance to a photograph I had made, but that wasn't what startled me - I was transfixed by the realization that one of the things I had learned, he had also learned. It's not something about how the sand looks, or how the rock looks, or even the arrangement of the rock in the photograph. It's that Garrod understands something about beaches - something I can't articulate in words. This understanding is in his photograph of this rock. When I saw this photograph, I knew beyond doubt that Garrod and I have, through photographing on the beach, learned the same thing about what I'll call 'beach-ness'; something about how beaches work, something about how they're put together, what beaches actually mean if you'll grant that a beach can actually mean something.
A few months ago, Chuck Downs and his wife, Laura, came to visit. We drove over to the coast, and spent a bunch of time photographing on the beach. When we came back, I showed Chuck the best of my beach photographs. All of them were neatly mounted (and some framed) because they'd just come down from a joint show I'd hung with my good friend David Clarridge. We went through the prints, with Chuck and Laura saying 'Ooooh!' and 'Ahhh!' and occasionally offering helpful suggestions on printing. And when we got to the end, Chuck opined that he was never going to hang a joint show of beach work with me, because he'd just spent four days on the beach with me, and he hadn't found ANY of the photos I'd just shown him. I thought that was pretty flattering.
Several days later, I came to think that perhaps, in a roundabout way, what Chuck was really saying was that he could see that there was an understanding reflected in those prints, and that by seeing them all together, he was now able to see the patterns of 'beach' in a way he couldn't before. He was, I hope, saying that this understanding made my photographs say 'beach' in a way the photographs he'd just made might not - that somehow this deep understanding I had acquired after all that photography on the beach was embedded in the photographs. In some sense the photographs are successful because they communicate 'beach' in a way that conveys some deep understanding of 'beachness'. If I can engage in a big wad of hubris, here, I want to think that Chuck experienced that flash of recognition that I felt when I looked at Dick Garrod's image.
So, my goal is to make more photographs that will let the viewer experience that flash of recognition. Lots of photographers talk about working on 'projects', where they explore a subject thoroughly. We urge each other to photograph what we love, to photograph close to home. I think these are good practices, mostly because I think they skew the odds in favor of getting enough of a handle on what you're photographing that you acquire the understanding you need to get into the photographs, and that as that happens, that understanding will show in the photographs, and the viewers will feel the excitement of that flash of recognition. And, I think, the flash of recognition is perhaps what separates a great photograph from one that's merely excellent craft.
This has lots of implications. It tells us that Eliot Porter's work is great to the extent that his deep understanding of the wild is reflected in his work. That part of what makes Jay Dusard's photographs of cowboys so compelling is his intimate understanding of what being a cowboy is all about. It implies that Deborah Marlin has some deep understanding of Golden Retrievers, and that when I view her photographs, I connect with that deep understanding, EVEN IF I don't know much about Goldens. That's nice, isn't it?
It also implies some not so nice things, too. It tells us that maybe the reason we think of other photographs as great is that the photographer understood the subject in some deeper sense, and that we recognize that deeper understanding when we see the photographs. That's pleasant when the photograph is of a dog swimming in the water, completely absorbed in being a dog. It's not quite as pleasant when it's a photograph of a naked little girl running down a road, fleeing the napalm fueled fire with a rictus of terror on her face. What makes that photograph so powerful is that Nick Ut's understanding of war, and fear, and pain comes through that image in a way that compels us to experience that flash of recognition. It's no accident that one image had such an impact on public attitude toward the Vietnam war. Maybe, if we want to make great photographs, we need to follow that path to understanding, and we need to recognize that path is not necessarily going to be pleasant.
That aside, here's the part I think is interesting. In making the beach photographs I showed to Chuck, I spent days and days on the beach. You'd have to be brain dead to spend that much time on the beach and not learn something about it. But I think I learned more about the beach because I was photographing it - that the very process of photographing it is what connected me with the beach in a way that let me learn about it more deeply. I'm sure that a person who lives on the beach understands more about beachness than I do, but I'm also sure that I've gotten a better, deeper understanding because the process of photography made me *need* to understand it. Not only that, photography was a tool that I could use to explore the beach, to come to terms with beachness, to try theories of what beaches mean and see if they worked.
When I first photographed on the beach, I made lots of bad photographs. The beach is a compelling place for me, and I loved going there to photograph, but my photos were, at best, boring. After I had gone several times, though, something happened; I came home, processed the film, and made work prints. As I flipped through the prints, I came to one that generated that flash of recognition. "Wow!", I thought, "Look at that! An image of a tide pool and rocks that actually shows how a tide pool forms, exists, behaves!"
And the next time I was on the beach, that one image pointed the way. Slowly, the photographs I made on the beach stopped being photographs of the beach, and started being photographs that encoded some bit of understanding about beaches. As I looked for these photographs, I learned even more about beaches. Somehow, the process of photography was the very mechanism that helped me understand something I hadn't really understood before.
And, now, when I'm on the beach, I see things I didn't see before - the way the water sorts sand by size and weight (and thus by color), the way water is simultaneously reflective and transparent, they way the sand erodes rock, the way water percolates through gravel, the way water affects the angle of repose of the sand. This understanding and freshened vision may seem unimportant - it's only the beach, after all. But photographing on the beach so much has enriched my experience of the beach, and that can't be bad.
I recently read an anecdote about Piet Mondrian. Mondrian was painting over old, already used canvases, and a friend chastised him for painting over 'perfectly good paintings'. Mondrian replied, "I'm not trying to make paintings, I'm trying to find things out." Similarly, Wynn Bullock once said "When I photograph, what I'm really doing is seeking answers to things." I think that both of them were saying that what they wanted was for you to feel that flash of recognition when you looked at their art, and the only way to do that was to work toward understanding and getting that understanding to show in the art.
Why do I photograph? Because I want the same thing. Is the goal for me to achieve greater understanding, or is the goal for me to make better art?