Sunday, May 17, 2015

For The Record

In recent months a few friends and I have been reading some collections of interviews with well known photographers. Our discussions have been interesting, with a variety of points of view making each of us think deeper and consider alternative approaches to thinking about our work and photography in general.

The process has been fun and has led me to seriously consider what I think of photography’s role in society and why I continue this particular creative pursuit.

I began working on a sort of essay, trying to get all my thoughts on paper in some coherent fashion. It turned out to be more of a chore than I was up to at the time, so I decided to mimic an interview style similar to the writings we had been reading, taking it one question at a time. So that’s what you will read in this series I call For The Record: answers to a number of questions that have come up during our discussions in response to our readings. Also I’ve included questions that I’m often asked by friends or students new to or not at all involved in photography.

This isn’t a record of a specific interview but rather an essay written in the interview format. This format makes writing about certain issues easier and more interesting for me and allowed me to cut to the chase and speak in frank and simple terms.

So far I’ve had fun with this writing. It’s been interesting to give serious thought to these questions and it’s helped me form a clearer notion of what I do and why. The reading and now my writing have also allowed me to be much more comfortable with my point of view and have even more fun doing my work.

I hope you to find this fun and interesting and as always I am writing to promote and encourage discussion, so please feel free to leave comments or send email. I am always interested in other perspectives.

“For The Record”

Q: Do you remember the first picture you took?

DWS: No. I remember my first roll of film. But my first picture, no. No one since roll film came available truly remembers the first photo they snapped. The first snap of the shutter is usually just practice to see if everything works: is the film loaded properly, is it transporting smoothly, that kind of thing.

The first picture on your first roll or even the first snap with your new DSLR, it’s all just to see if everything is working. That’s  sort of a silly question when you really think about it but it’s one that’s often asked.

Q: Why black and white?

DWS: Black and white gets you to the essence of a thing. It presents the information you need to contemplate, to ask questions, to consider the nature and circumstances of the subject. I mean this is true for the photographer making the image and the viewer looking at a print.

Color is distracting. Because we see in color we make assumptions. Our brains process color information based on a lifetime of visual programing. Like a computer program it interprets that information, categorizes it according to the limitations of the programing. It does all that work for us. So we spend less time looking and see less.

Black and white forces us to “do the math” so to speak. We have to think about what we are looking at, slow down and figure it out.

Q: You call yourself a documentary photographer?

DWS: Yes. While “documentary photography” as a term covers a wide variety of imagery it’s often thought of as “news” or “events” coverage.

I document my social environment. I really look at my social surroundings with the eye of an archaeologist, that’s how I was trained and that carries over into my photography. I document my environment in a way similar to an archaeologist cataloging the artifacts recovered in an excavation. The subjects I photograph are the artifacts, the composition of the photograph is the context, the provenience in which the subject/artifact was discovered.

The interpretation of this documented evidence, meaning my image, is left to the viewer. I don’t care how my images are interpreted. I have no specific message I’m trying to convey. If the viewer is moved to consider the subject and its context in an image then the photograph is doing its job and I’ve done my job.

My job as a photographer is to evoke thoughtful consideration and increased awareness, not just of our social environment, but also of our place in it. The photograph is a simile of its subject. It is the photographer’s job to interpret the subject in in a way that transcends the physical limitations of the photograph itself.

Ultimately the photograph is the document, the document of a moment, a specific thing or place in time. It doesn’t matter if the subject is news worthy, historically significant or a rose in a glass of water on a windowsill. The photograph of that situation, circumstance or thing is a document of something specific in a space in time. No matter how mundane it is, it’s a unique fragment of an existence. It also reflects a fragment of time in the photographer’s existence, so actually every photograph documents more than is apparent in the image, and that’s why the viewer’s interpretation becomes so important.

(More to come...)

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