The Thinking Photographer
Audience: For Whom the Silver Tones
One of the objectives of this course is to avoid over-saturating the student with the work of well-known photographers. A sampling is good. This provides inspiration. An over dose leads to the feeling that everything interesting has already been done. Futility can grow until you slip back into making unthinking snap shots.
A feeling of futility is wrong on two counts. First, although in many ways everything has been done, our society has an insatiable demand for new images. Thus, if you are interested in getting into print you stand a reasonable chance of success. Similarly, photographic contests abound.
Secondly, and probably most importantly, personal photographs document and illuminate your own life. The great dust bowl photographer Walker Evans may have plenty to say about the condition of man, but only you can interpret the range of your existence with a studied eye.
The rather self-rightous adage "The unexamined life is not worth living," has a counterpart concept in photography. Mastery of the craft permits life to be explored in visual terms. Such documenting is not limited to vacation slides. Quality photographs record not only the people and places of your life but also document your emotional and aesthetic growth. Personal photographs are a visual diary.
If we agree that serious photography is a worth-while endeavor even if no photograph ever makes it to a museum, then we are led to the question of audience. For whom do we photograph? In pondering all the issues of communications, we postulated a mysterious audience with whom we were striving to communicate. Now we must confront this matter.
Most likely you will have two types of undesirable audience. The first type thinks whatever you do is great. These loyal fans believe that criticism (in the sense of critiquing) would hurt your feelings. The second type finds it preposterous that you would photograph someone, for instance, whom you do not know and love dearly. We won't even mention their reaction to an abstract photograph.
Both of these groups are immune to the subtle communications of visual ideals and emotion.
Unfortunately, there are no simple answers. An audience beyond yourself is necessary if you are ever to engage in communication. The best that can be said is to share your photographs with whomever is willing to view them. Educate your audience slowly into what you are trying to achieve in your photographs. Treat your work with care and respect and some of this feeling will be communicated to your audience. Don't apologize.
The matter of audience is not trivial. When you cannot effectively share your vision you lose incentive to bring your camera out and make the effort to product a quality statement.
Regardless of the presence or absence of an audience, the ultimate viewer is yourself. You should be both your harshest critic and biggest fan. The critic part results from carefully reviewing each photograph. How could you have made it better? What does the image say? Is the message what you intended? On the other hand, if you do not like your photographs, it is unlikely that anyone else will either. You need not share your self criticism.
Ansel Adams has paraphrased pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz with regard to audience:
I recognize something of significant and emotional impact to me in the world about me; I photograph it with appropriate respect; I give you the print. I am naturally pleased if you respond to my concept. I am not bothered if you do not. But if my image opens new worlds for you, new visions and new confidences, then I feel I have truly consummated a personal communication.
Appreciate your own photographs. Work like every one is destined for the Museum of Modern Art; but value them for their own sake.
© Copyright 1999 Brian R. Page