A good photograph, like a good painting, speaks with a loud voice and demands time and attention if it is to be fully perceived. An art lover is perfectly willing to hang a painting on a wall for years on end, but ask him to study a single photograph for ten unbroken minutes and he’ll think it’s a waste of time. Staying power is difficult to build into a photograph. Mostly, it takes content. A good photograph can penetrate the subconscious – but only if it is allowed to speak for however much time it needs to get there.
Traditionally, photography has dealt with recording the world as it is found. Before photography appeared the fine artists of the time, the painters and sculptors, concerned themselves with rendering reality with as much likeness as their skill enabled. Photography, however, made artistic reality much more available, more quickly and on a much broader scale.
To be able to see in concrete terms what was created in a fraction of a second is a rare luxury. Even though fixed in time, a photograph evokes as much feeling as that which comes from music or dance. Whatever the mode – from the snapshot to the decisive moment to multi-media montage – the intent and purpose of photography is to render in visual terms feelings and experiences that often elude the ability of words to describe. In any case, the eyes have it, and the imagination will always soar farther than was expected.
One night I was on my [Navy] ship... on my first cruise crossing the North Atlantic in a horrible storm, chained to the rails so I wouldn’t fall overboard. In this lightning and thunder and hail, in this misery, I shouted at the heavens with my little squeaky voice and said, “Someday I’m going to be a photographer!” It was as big an epiphany as any man ever had.
Photographic technique is no secret and – provided the interest is there – easily assimilated. But inspiration comes from the soul and when the Muse isn’t around even the best exposure meter is very little help. In their biographies, artists like Michelangelo, da Vinci and Bach said that their most valuable technique was their ability to inspire themselves. This is true of all artists; the moment there is something to say, there becomes a way to say it.
To communicate requires that those who view the work also understand. Fortunately, people respond to visual stimulus on more than one level. Abstraction, for instance, has always played a big role in artistic expression, and it is becoming more accepted in photographs. There’s nothing new about abstraction in painting, but for some reason people respect painting more than photography. This might be because photographs are so widely used by the media in this culture that they are regarded as mere ephemera… you look at a photograph once and then turn the page.
Photographs now speak in an eloquent way about the nature of vision itself. The philosophical implications of sight, of being able to see the world in three-dimensional terms, becomes very important within the context of the artistic photograph. The riddle of space and time is somehow stated with a little bit more clarity by virtue of seeing in-between the heartbeats.
It occurs to me that at the beginning one works passionately to learn photography. This takes years, and the craft is usually formed during this period. Then as time passes one finds oneself more in the role of serving the medium... Then, as in the example of several masters that I have been privileged to know personally, it appears that by having devoted oneself totally to the medium, one becomes photography.