For me, the question of “why photography” is inextricably linked to the question of what makes a photograph good. Part of the allure of photography to me is the challenge of making good images, and the effort to learn what that actually means.
In the grand scheme of art, photography is easy and fast. The technical challenges of photography pale in comparison to the skill, time, and effort required merely to produce an acceptable likeness in paint or clay. Though photographs may be beautiful, paintings and other imaginative arts have fewer limitations on pure aesthetic pursuit. Therefore if a photograph or body of photographs is to have merit, that merit is unlikely to rest purely on craftsmanship or aesthetic value.
For many years it has been my position that a central quality of good photography is an interesting and well-articulated perspective. To quote Ansel Adams: “the only thing that matters in photography is where you stand.” Photography is at its core an exercise in editing the world and offering a viewer the chance to see from an angle the photographer selects. The photographer chooses “this moment, not that one,” “this angle, not that one,” and “I’ll include this, but not that.” Photographs, especially in aggregate, offer a visual means of articulating one’s worldview.
Under this philosophy, photographic technique becomes a tool in furthering the perspective of the photographer, and artistic decisions are made in the manner a writer selects a particular synonym or punctuation. The problem with reducing the merits of photography to its effectiveness at communicating perspective became apparent to me when I was discussing a portrait of a controversial figure with a friend recently. While the specific portrait is not important, we agreed that the effectiveness of the portrait was attested to by the fact that both those who loved and loathed the subject thought the image fantastic, although for opposing reasons. Each side saw in the image the qualities that informed their opinion on the subject, positive or negative.
It occurred to me at that time that in photography as with many other art forms, the works that are most beloved and most lasting have an element of a Rorschach test in them. We love La Jaconde because we may interpret her smile according to our own context and mood. Hamlet endures because of its plasticity: each generation, reader, or audience member understands it through the prism of a unique, contemporary, personal context. And while few would interpret Marilyn Monroe’s expression in her famous Avedon portrait as happy, our specific reading of her expression is also based upon our knowledge of her subsequent story and upon our own temperament. While Minor White once said that “all photographs are self-portraits,” one could also argue that every viewer experiences every portrait as a mirror at least as much as a window.
If it is true, however, that a photograph may be more successful if it leaves room for interpretation, this may undermine my earlier supposition that success in photography means clear articulation of a perspective. If a photographer expresses a perspective with enough clarity and precision, this may leave the viewer with less room to insert their own thoughts and feelings into the image. So a caveat might be required that a photographer must simultaneously offer his viewers an interesting perspective and leave them room to inhabit it. A complex interplay between the perspective of the photographer and viewer is requisite for success in photography: a photographer who disregards the latter is simply shouting in a vacuum.
To bring these thoughts full circle, what I often enjoy about photography is the synthesis of experience created from subject, photographer, and viewer. The context brought by each of these contributors defines the experience, and even though by its nature a photograph is a frozen fragment of time, our experience of it evolves constantly. The most important part of an image may take place outside of its frame.