“…you see the paradox; the tension between two contenders: in one corner, HONESTY. In the other, INSPIRATION. Does an inspiring photograph need to be misleading? Otherwise put, can an honest photograph cause the viewer to wonder? That question is at the heart of Blue Hour Journal.“
It’s difficult to write well about a photograph. Robert Adams said it perfectly in Why People Photograph; “The main reason that artists don’t willingly describe or explain what they produce is, however, that the minute they do so they’ve admitted failure. Words are proof that the vision they had is not, in the opinion of some at least, fully there in the pictures. Characterizing in words what they thought they’d shown is an acknowledgment that the photograph is unclear – that it is not art.” (Robert Adams, Why People Photograph, Aperture Press/p.33)
The power of a photograph is how it employs imagination; its ability to transport the viewer to a unique place or moment in time. Experiencing a photograph is the sum of the viewer’s unique life experience plus what is visually before them. These components, different for every individual – combine to produce in that moment an experience unique to that person; that image.
The photograph above, for example, was made in November of 2009. My wife and I had made an impromptu visit to Colorado’s San Luis Valley and spent a cold night camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. The intention the next morning was to awake early for sunrise. When the time came it was cold and dark and honestly, the last thing I wanted was to crawl from a warm down bag into the cold. Unzipping the tent door I was able to poke my head out just enough to see a brilliant orange sky through blue spruce canopies. I nudged my wife, still asleep, and said it was worth a look.
Several minutes later, we along with our now passed black lab Henry, were sitting beneath the most unusual and indescribably beautiful sky, silently watching the trailing eastern edge of clouds catch fire in the rising sun. To me, this photograph instantly transports me back to that quiet, still morning. I can feel the breeze blowing through the grass, hear Henry’s chin resting on his paws, sighing. My wife and I whispering to each other – not wishing to break the magic of the moment. To me at least, the photograph is more than a spectacular sunrise. And that is – I believe – somehow infused into the image for others to see should they choose.
This idea – that a photograph might strive to be, in a perfect world, best-case scenario – greater than sum of its parts – relates to the gestalt theory. Gestalt theory emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than it’s parts. That is, the attributes of the whole are not deducible from analysis of the parts in isolation. The word Gestalt is used in modern German to mean, “the way things have been placed; or put together. There is no English language equivalent.
To totally butcher this idea towards viewing a photograph; it might seem impertinent for a photographer to infer his or her images are actually better than they at first appear to the casual viewer, further – ‘if the casual viewer can’t see how special they are there’s something wrong with them.’ This would be a gross misinterpretation of the point.
I was discussing with my son recently, who is coming into his own photographic style, the characteristics of the photographs we make. I asked him about mine. “Honest,” he said, without hesitation. This meant more to me than I could convey at the time, though I’m not 100% certain his comment was based in compliment. Coming up in a largely photo-journalistic approach to photography, there accompanies with it a sense of responsibility (if you will) to tell the truth in a photograph.
Again, Robert Adams from “Why People Photograph:” “I felt that photography ought to start with and remain faithful to the appearance of the world, and in so doing record contradictions. The greatest pictures would then – and I still believe this – find wholeness in the torn world.”
Sadly to me, often times people don’t want the truth from a photograph. Instead, it represents an opportunity to put the (often ugly) truth aside and – just for a moment – live in a world of fiction. A few years ago I attended a conference where the presenter said something along the lines of, “if you want a perfectly technically accurate photograph, take a picture of a gray card.” For those who don’t know what a gray card is, it’s a simple piece of cardboard colored in a specific shade of gray used to calibrate the camera’s exposure meter. In other words, boring – technically precise, but worthy of studying?
In many cases people don’t want to look at boring photographs. They want to wonder; to imagine; to be inspired. That’s often what I seek in a photograph, at least. So you see the paradox; the tension between two contenders: in one corner, HONESTY. In the other, INSPIRATION. Does an inspiring photograph need to be misleading? Otherwise put, can an honest photograph cause the viewer to wonder? That question is at the heart of Blue Hour Journal.
Often times there’s no reason behind an image beyond the simple truth that it elicited a response from the photographer. That response resulted in a photograph. Other’s reasons for making an image range from the etherial to pragmatic. Dianne Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know…” Robert Adams spoke of the decision to make a photograph “as a kind of seduction, and the seduction is worked by light.” And finally William Eggleston frankly states, “You take photographs to see what the world looks like, photographed.“
When visiting a place – especially for the first time – seeking out the typical views is something I avoid. You’ll see exceptions to this, but generally speaking I’m more apt to be found slowly wandering alone, searching for things others may pass over. For me to truly get to know a place is a process requiring time, solitude and observation.
German-born director and photographer Wim Wenders once said,
“Taking pictures is a very solitary thing, at least for me. That’s why I wouldn’t even want to have an assistant with me, because the very presence of somebody else would make that more important than my relation to the place. And to immerse in a place is strictly only possible when you are on your own. You can fake it and you can pretend to want to listen to a place but as soon as there is someone else there, even if it’s just a bystander looking at what you are doing, it is over. You are no longer in the privileged position of being a listener.”Wim Wenders, Written in the West
The solitary nature of photography has always been appealing to me. After reading the statement above I found myself nodding my head and smiling, realizing how true it is for me. I’m not sure I can articulate or explain why, and will not attempt to here. But something happens when visiting a place, especially for the first time, and allowing oneself to open up to that place, that can enrich your life beyond your ability to describe it.
I happen to live in the remarkably beautiful state of Colorado, and that’s not something I take for granted. It’s important to realize however that no matter where you live – there are visually interesting things all around you. Discovering those things; becoming a student of the world – is one of the most fulfilling ways to spend your free time, camera in hand – wandering, listening, learning.
For me one of the greatest joys of wandering with a camera is using it as an excuse to be in the world – not just looking, but earnestly listening. This is what I hope Blue Hour Journal does for you: inspires you to get out into the world, wherever your corner of the world may be, listening and discovering. Then be able to share with others upon your return. Please enjoy Blue Hour Journal and use it to fuel your own journey.