That old cliche, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. But how true is that in the early 21st century? I can’t decide which has been most de-valued: real photographs or the written word.
Words now must be brief, simple. They should often reference someone else’s words or a movie, perhaps. This is the age of the meme, and everything’s a mindless shortcut. Take less time to get there, but getting there is rarely worth it.
As for photography, then it’s true there has been a similar devaluing of the art. Digital images and Photoshop manipulation have left people unsure as to what’s real, genuine and what’s the result of post production and even fakery.
But worse. Both words and photography suffer from what I regard as a new phenomenon. Somehow, there must be a personal connection between the words or photographs and the viewer. The words must describe some aspect of the reader. Perhaps a character trait or even an aspiration. Similarly, the viewer tends to seek a personal connection to a photograph. Maybe he or she knows where it is. A favourite place. Certainly, somewhere they can recognise. Why is this, and is it what photography is about?
Personally, I don’t understand it in the slightest. It’s been said before, but photography is the art of using one frame where a film maker might use millions. Another cliché! But an important part of film making, pretty regardless of genre, is the creation of atmosphere. And many a film, book or piece of music stands or falls on the strength of its atmosphere.
Many of my photographs are not of specific places. They may be of a single, anonymous tree, leaf, plant or other natural item. What makes them important, to my eyes, is their atmosphere. A bunch of gaudy, glorious Autumn leaves against a blue sky. Last year’s meadowsweet, coated with spiders webs and frost. Early morning grass in Summer, a different place in just half an hour’s time. Hawthorn berries, a brave show of bright red against Winter’s cold and ice. THESE, for me and those who like to keep their eyes open, are the atmospheric moments that define a season, or a time of day. The river, low mist and sunbeams between the tree’s branches. Come along in an hour’s time, and it will be like it never happened.
But when we think of a certain season, it is in general terms, not a specific scene. We don’t think of “insert local beauty spot here, which I know because I’ve been there”, we think in general terms of ice, snow, cold light, snowflakes, frost or soft Autumn light, rain, misty mornings and the glorious colours at the year’s end.
I am at a loss to know why everything must be made personal. I believe that some things are bigger than us. More detached. Indifferent, and all the better for it. I know from personal experience that when we really, really attempt to realise what matters in life, it is the very simple that means the most. It cannot be bought or sold. It is mundane, even, and often, it has no connection to us personally, merely that it is a tiny aspect of something much, much bigger. The clock of the seasons, the race of the sun across the sky, the light changing by the minute, cold hands, but a heart warmed by a confirmation that all’s well with the world, as Autumn leaves fall upon the misty river and the watcher with a heart and soul thinks “now that’s Autumn”.
And so, I take photographs for the same reason Vincent Van Goch painted stars. “Look! Stars!”. To some, it’s stating the obvious. Others may want something earth shattering. Many, no doubt, want it to include them in some way.
But my job, I believe, is to capture that moment when the shutter fired. THAT morning, at that time, with that light, those leaves and all together, anonymous, should speak to that part of the mind that knows what nature and the world is really about. It really isn’t about us.
What do you think?