Thursday, November 08, 2007

Contradictions and Conundrums

The vast majority of fine art photography doesn't have a huge emotional impact. This includes the vast majority of landscape photography, much of architectural work and frankly even a fair amount of portrait or figure work. Oh sure, the dark sky may be a bit threatening, the expression wistful, but that hardly equates with the emotion of "Migrant Farm Worker" by Dorothea Lange or lots of photojournalism. Certainly the most that can be said in terms of emotion about the typical rocks and roots pictures is well composed, very pretty, nice capture, and so on - comments you see all the time on some of the photo posting sites. What the hell is a "nice capture". Sounds like you got lucky, hardly a compliment.

So, if there are great photographs which don't engender really strong emotions, how is it that they are great, especially in comparison to all the other well exposed, skillfully edited and printed and perfectly composed images out there, created by many famous photographers and lots of skilled amateurs?

I suspect that a considerable number of these images either leave you guessing about some aspect - the where or the scale or how or even why, or they offer contradictions within a single image. That contradiction could be as simple as sharp vs. rounded, or old vs. new. It could be tranquil vs. stormy, smooth vs. rough.

Recently Craig Tanner of Radiant Vista posted a portrait on his diary which expresses this perfectly, the presumably blind man is dresssed in real style (that he can't see), the whole image is done in shades of light gray and blue, except for the bright yellow box of M&M's. You are left wondering just what he's doing with them - he could be carrying them home but the box is open - did he get hungry? Is he standing on the street corner at halloween handing them out. Craig offers no explanation for the image and I really want one, yet realize that once I know the explanation, I won't have the opportunity to wonder about the story, or to make up my own story for the image.

The work of Elliot Erwitt epitomizes the contradiction, puzzle, visual pun style of photography - the short dog with the tall, the bull dog sitting on the stairs, only he's on the lap of his owner whose head is behind the dog.

To some degree, the same thing is true of many of the photographs of Cartier Bresson - in his case it's the exquisitely timed capture of a figure placed in the scene or an expression or a grouping - in this case it's less of a conundrum and more of "how the heck did he manage to line everything and everyone up so perfectly?".

Perhaps it's time to start thinking about your next location in terms of contrasts, contradictions, mysteries and puzzles.

1 comment:

andrew said...

George, I read this column three times over the course of a day. Finally, I realized that Craig Tanner's photo HAS emotional impact galore, and that the "guessing" part of the photo is icing on the cake. I am not sure who determines whether a photo is great, but for me emotional resonance is required.
If you get a chance, watch the recent movie "Ratatouille". There is a scene wherein the great food critic takes his first bite of a dish and is emotionally transported. It's really magical. I want my photos to move people like that.

Andrew Kirk, proud owner of two George Barr prints.