Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Photographic Dilemma...

   After several weeks of delving into the Taoist side of picture making, (with a short detour into "thin places") it is time to reflect on the contemplative dimension of photography.  Before I begin that series, I feel a brief discussion on what I call the "photographic dilemma" is called for.  It is a question each of us has to answer before we go too far on our journey as photographers.You'll have to decide on which side of the fence you stand or you may decide to hop back and forth over the fence as the spirit moves you.

     Basically, it boils down to one question. Do photographs reveal cultural codes or personal truths?  Or, to put it in another way,  do photographs merely record what is in front of the photographer or are they metaphors for what is inside the photographer?  The prevailing feeling in the art world today is the former. Personally, I feel both  are equally valid points of view.  It all depends on the motivation and intent of the photographer. However, the "art market", that self-proclaimed arbitrator of style and setter of trends, seems to favor the detached, impersonal type of image at the moment...sometimes, the more visually and conceptually shocking the better.  Any mention of the transcendental aspect of the photographic experience sets their tongues "tsk tsking" and their heads shaking. The metaphoric capabilities of photography seem certainly to be out of style.  That's fine with me.  I've never been one to follow the trends anyway and besides, I believe in, as Minor White described it, a "perpetual trend" that is always with us; that is the ability of photography to transcend the here and now and offer the viewer a more complex and symbolic vocabulary...the language known very well by the contemplative photographer.

 I offer one of my photographs as an example.

  This is a dresser that I photographed in the Outer Hebrides in 2005.  Most traditional Hebridean homes had such a piece of furniture.  Many still do.  Only the best china, special objects, and photographs were place in it. You could view it as just a cultural artifact or a nice composition of lines and circles or, if you took the metaphoric approach, you could, as I do, view it as a domestic shrine dedicated to the most cherished hopes and memories of a altar to the sanctity of belonging.

   Detractors of the metaphoric approach to image making insist that it is too personal, too reliant on individual interpretation.  It is true, you may not see what I saw in the dresser but that is the very point of contemplative photography.  Everyone brings to it that which is in themselves and takes away only what they need.  What more can you ask of a photograph?  Besides, I submit that we human beings are innately contemplative creatures at heart.  We long to find meaning even in the seemingly meaningless.  There is no harm in that.  In fact, it can inspire new revelations and insights and that is what contemplative photography is...a personal journey inward by means of thoughtfully created imagery of your outward experience.  It need only mean something to you.

     Very often we begin on one side of the fence, making a photograph of something that caught our eye, for whatever reason, and it is only later, when we really look at the image do we begin to see it's metaphoric intentions. Hop back over the fence. This is perfectly acceptable and I think Rene Margritte has a valid point to make, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" but ultimately, metaphor, as well as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you are a person of a contemplative nature, you will see the metaphor.  If you aren't then you will see the beauty.  You both win!  Dilemma solved.

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