I am constantly thinking and rethinking about photography, what is it, what it ought to be, what I want to make of it. As a stay-at-home dad, I have a lot of time to think (laundry does not do itself, alas, but neither does it demand much mental energy). I do take pictures sometimes, though, I promise! Not that I long ago I wrote up some ideas about trame on this very web site. The present remarks overlap, but are I think different.
Over the last few years I have developed a mild obsession with certain Buddhist concepts, as well as the ideas around so-called natural navigation, the processes by which ancient cultures were able to reliably travel across oceans, find water and find home in vast deserts, and so forth. The common ground here is an idea of presence, of being present in wherever you are, the idea of perceiving what is really there and what is important.
The Polynesian ocean navigator is aware of the wind, the waves, and the ocean swell. He (in ancient times it was always He) felt the magnitude and direction of these phenomena. He knew where the sun was in the sky, where the stars were. Integrating all these details and more, he more or less just knew where he was, and where his destination was. Ancient desert peoples are similarly tuned in to the fine details of the plants, the topography, the weather, the fauna, and thus perform astonishing miracles of water-finding, of home-finding. To them it’s perfectly obvious that there is (probably) water over there.
The meditating Buddhist focuses similarly on presence, on the here and now, on really paying attention to what is here, right now.
This is all allied to photography in a fairly straightforward way. The photographer is also attuned to fine details, and to the present here and now. Finding the relevant detail and snapping it in a way that reveals is, in a way, the essence of photography.
It has occurred to me that there might be a little more here. The ancient navigator is attuned to many details of his circumstance, but also to the relationships between them. The difference between the direction of wind and waves on the ocean speaks volumes. Two plants growing near one another in the shadow of a stone might be terribly interesting to a man starving in a desert, if only he knew.
Now, we are not most of us versed in the arts of natural navigation or desert survival. We are, however, attuned in much the same way to our own reality, to our modern world. We sense, instinctively and immediately, the relationships between people, buildings, cars and bicycles. The modern garden might be as rich and interconnected to some of us as is the sea to the Polynesian savant.
I have recently been attempting to apply this sort of thinking to photography. These ideas seem to me to be, potentially, useful both for understanding and thinking about pictures we see, as well as for making our own pictures. These remarks are illustrated with my experiments on making pictures with these ideas in mind. None of these photos are intended to be finished pictures, portfolio candidates, or anything of that sort. Nor are they part of some larger project. These are merely experiments.
It’s tempting to say that one simply includes some of the environment in the frame, as I did with the picture of snowdrops above. The mulch on the ground, the tree in the background, the shadows of other objects suggest a complete environment in which these flowers find themselves. The idea is not so simple, however.
In this picture, the subject is deliberately isolated, but there’s a clear and deliberate implication of at least one other person nearby and of some strong emotional relationship occurring at this exact moment.
My method in making these experiments is to try to explicitly see and remark on elements of relationship, on the networks I perceive. I mumble quietly to myself. I will narrate, roughly, what I was mumbling for each picture.
What do people do? The are aware of one another. They ignore one another, acknowledge one another. They hate, they love, they’re angry, they’re proud. The boy on the train studiously ignores the beautiful girl, the little group talks, while two men find one another accidentally in one another’s personal space.
A couple rides the ferry, alternately chatting, reading. wandering the ship. In a moment of joy and love she sits in his lap for a moment.
A group of young people traveling wait for a bus, passing the time in conversation, alternately attending to one another, and ignoring one another in preference to their phones. The people nearby are aware of the group, but carefully keep the correct distance, to respect boundaries and the small privacy available in public spaces.
What do cars on a freeway do? The pass one another. They are, like people, usually aware of each other. They cut one another off. One car signals a lane change, another does not but does that strange imperceptible hesitation, that minuscule feint to the right or left that lets you know they want to go over there, into a new lane. One car allows another into a lane, another car speeds up to impede a lane change. Cars turn, they stop. Cars journey from beginning to destination. Cars find and take exits off the freeway.
There’s obviously some relationship here to story-telling, and it’s possible this is even what many people mean when they talk about storytelling. Me, for now I’m just trying to see the relationships in the frame, and the ways that the frame might imply relationships beyond the frame.
The challenge is to photograph some portion of this mesh of relationship, of this network. We perceive these things in real time, but much of it is perceived in a thousand tiny perceptions built up over a little time, the motion of her hips, the way the car hesitates before the blinker comes on, the tone of his voice, the way the light changes when a cloud passes in front of the sun.
On the flip side, the photograph has special expressive power here. A painter can, in general, only paint that which she perceives, that she notices. The camera captures the things we notice, as well as everything else that was there. Where I perceive two or three elements that express the boy’s love for the girl, you might notice one of those and four others which I missed. The truth of the photograph, while limited, is complete within its narrow domain, and that is the peculiar and special power of the photograph.
I think a strong argument could be made that this is what Henri Cartier-Bresson was doing with his “decisive moment”, trying to find that moment when this ‘network’ if you will was most clearly, most beautifully, most wittily illustrated. I find myself thinking that while Cartier-Bresson tried to find the network as a whole, Winogrand on the other hand sought out the single strand of relationship, the single sight-line, the single interaction, letting one crystalline link of the network stand in for the rest.
Russ Lewis has argued recently (here) that this, or at any rate a similar idea is what drives street photography. It is tempting to think that, in fact, these ideas are really restricted to street. I disagree with this, however. Portraits, for instance, can be built around these ideas of relationship.
My daughter is drinking hot chocolate (out of frame) and watching videos on a tablet (barely in-frame) and her smile is just for me behind the camera. I just called her name, she turned to me and smiled, and at this precise instant is turning back to her video. Network, relationship, meshes of connection from the banal (hot chocolate) to the sublime (daddy). This is somewhere between a proper environmental portrait, in which the uses of Network are obvious, and a headshot, in which the Network is not.
Perhaps, and I am reaching here, groping around and trying out ideas which may be crazy, perhaps what makes a great landscape photograph is that it illustrates and implies the vast network of relationships and dependencies that make up some part of the natural world. Is Ansel Adams better than his many acolytes because, somehow, his pictures imply the rabbits, the deer, the bears, the foxgloves and ferns that are not there in the frame?
I don’t know. I do not think that this network idea is the be all and end all of photography. It’s just an idea, something I am working on seeing better, and I think it might, it just might, be a valuable idea.