Portraits of the Present Tense (or how I realized you can’t filter away reality)
While visiting New York this week I had the chance to do a bit of cultural exploration and checked out the exhibition of early Diane Arbus photography at the new Met Breuer. For those not familiar with Arbus (1923–1971) she was one of the most influential post-war artistic photographers, renowned for her dramatically simplistic images of individuals often perceived as being on the fringe of society, whether through socio-economic status, gender orientation, profession, body type or otherwise. Her subjects typically defied “normal” conventions of beauty, but nonetheless are captivating in their reflections of reality.
As I gazed at image after image, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the imperfect subjects and poses in Arbus’ photography contrast with our contemporary search of the perfect image (something I too am guilty of doing). We take multiple photos at multiple angles looking for the perfect frame, and then we use our editing tools and filters to make it even more perfect. Adding more light, smoothing out skin, we crop and carve our images to show exactly the way we want to be seen and remembered, whether for a day, a year or a lifetime. Perhaps not every one of of these snapshots will meet that near idyllic standard of worthy of “profile photo” (the holy grail of contemporary photo perfectionism), but they all serve as a capture of an image or an ideal we deem worth sharing, pinning, snapping and ‘graming (and hoping others deem worthy of a “like”, “love”, or share).
The truth is, however, that no matter how much we may seek to capture perfection, reality isn’t flawless, it’s not easily filtered, and it’s rarely ideal. We saw that last week with the powerful image of a little boy, Omran Daqneesh, stained by the smoke, blood, dirt and devastation of the Syrian war. We see it in images of lifeless bodies of black men murdered in our streets, panoramas of communities devastated by poverty and natural disasters, and collages of sexist and misogynistic photos bullied onto peoples personal websites. Moreover, just beyond the frame of every one of our exquisitely shareable images or selfie smiles is also an endless array of brokenness hidden in the shadows that also demand to be photographed, to be shared and understood. Our camera flashes might blind our eyes, but they rarely illuminate the darkness just beyond our line of sight.
Yes — what we capture with our cameras inherently demonstrates to others what we care about, but what we don’t capture also tells a bit about what we choose to ignore. So here’s to hoping all of us remember that the truth isn’t in the editing of our photos — it’s in the inherent quality of subjects themselves, seen and unseen. Because the more we see, the more we realize the work that needs to be done, and the more we are motivated to go help make a difference. Can you picture more people doing exactly that?
Shabbat Shalom from Atlanta!
That’s what I have been thinking… what about you? I would love to hear new ideas, articles or trends you are thinking about, so feel free to share at sethacohen33(a)gmail.com. And to receive my weekly “I’ve Been Thinking…” in your email, subscribe at http://tinyletter.com/sethacohen33