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Photographs as Experience

©E. E. McCollum
Listen to a recorded version of this essay.

I made this photo of a descanso — a roadside memorial — on the way from Santa Fe to Taos one morning in November. I was struck by the stark white cross against the blue sky and the deeply eroded hillside that led down to the road. There was no traffic and I asked my wife to stop the car so that I could get closer. The mid-morning sun and fall wind lent a feeling of purity to what was otherwise only desolate. The descansos are erected where someone has died or, more exactly, where a journey has been interrupted by tragedy. But what journey? What tragedy? I didn’t think much about that, to be honest. I was more concerned with composition than emotion, and with the technical considerations of making an image in such strong light. I shot several frames and got back in the car, eager for shelter from the wind, and for lunch in Taos.

Back home, I found I liked this image. It made a rich black and white print, and captured a vein of loss in the spare New Mexico landscape. I sent a print to an old friend who also loves photography, and the Southwest. Her response came in a few days.

“Family churches and devotionals fascinate me,” my friend emailed. “When I came upon them in New Mexico I wanted to move closer, but felt like an intruder. I can linger with a photograph without feeling like that. I think about the family who built the cross in your photograph, who they buried there, how often they visit. In this photo I also think about the storms that have given the hill its grooves, and how the cross has withstood powerful lightning, thunder and wind. The solitary location invites deep thought.”

I think a lot about making images and also about the ways photographic images mediate our relationship with the world. However, reading my friend’s email, I realized that I don’t think much about why we look at photographs to begin with. My friend is not an artist. She is, however, a passionate and thoughtful collector of art. For her, looking at this image allowed a feeling of intimacy that she might not have been able to achieve otherwise. She could linger with my photograph in her hands in a way that she couldn’t have lingered had she been beside me on the road that cold morning. With the photo, she took time to look more deeply, to think about the family involved, the tragedy, and the way in which they made their grief public.

It isn’t often that I get such a thoughtful response to one of my images. Mostly I get a “like” on Facebook or Instagram or maybe a “Nice shot.” We live in a constant stream of visual information and taking time to really look at a photo, to think about it and how it affects us, feels like a rarity. Images come and go at such a pace that truly apprehending them seems nearly impossible. But my friend showed me it is possible. And gave me a terrific gift in the process. One of the things I think artists need is what I call an intermediate audience. We are the initial audience for our work. We look hard, think hard, and try again and again to produce something that represents our vision. We make the first judgment about its value. The final audience, I think, is whatever public we have in mind for our work. It might be a gallery wall, a book, a post on social media, a gift to family at the holidays, or any number of other ways in which we decide to make our work public. Once our work is given to the public, however — unless we’re well known and critics write about what we do — we rarely hear much more about it. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Knowing that my work has been seen and enjoyed by people I could not provide it to on my own is deeply satisfying, even if I hear nothing from them. However, between ourselves and the public dissemination of our work, if we are lucky, we find people like my friend — our intermediate audience. These are the people we turn to when we feel stuck with a project, or when an image just doesn’t work and we aren’t quite sure why. They not only view and appreciate our work but they also turn us back toward it, and help us see it again. This is what my friend did for me with her thoughts about the image of the descanso. She helped me think more deeply not only about that image but also about the many roles that photographic images play in our lives.

Photography has long been about bringing unknown worlds to us. The stack of National Geographic magazines in the bookcase at the back of my seventh grade classroom offered a welcome respite from the demands of diagramming sentences and solving math problems. The images on those well-worn pages hinted at worlds I could not imagine myself experiencing first-hand as a boy growing up in the middle of Iowa. My friend’s reaction to the descanso print reminded me that photographs can bring us less tangible worlds, too.

There is some danger, of course, in thinking that if you have seen a photograph you have seen the thing pictured. No one makes this point with as much conviction as Susan Sontag. Her now 40-year-old book, On Photography, remains influential despite its critics. Sontag contends that while photos show us the world, they simultaneously insulate us from it, resulting in a kind of deadness or anesthesia as photographs allow us to hold the world at arm’s length. To buy Sontag’s argument, it seems to me, we have to keep our medium tied to representation; we have to believe that when we look at a photograph we can expect to see an accurate representation of the world, a reflection of some material reality. Leaving aside some work that relies solely on the manipulation of photographic materials — analog or digital — to make images, this is largely true. But if we stop there, photography always fails. My friend never saw the little cross on the hill in person. She saw what I photographed, what I believed was most important. But is that really a failure? I don’t think she mistook the image for the thing, nor did she seem disappointed that it wasn’t. The photograph invited her to engage with something, an invitation that led to reflection and deep thought. I think it is safe to say that my friend came away richer from looking at that photo, not deadened or depleted. But how?

John Dewey’s 1934 book — Art as Experience — may help us here. It is difficult to do Dewey’s complex argument justice in a few words but, generally, he claims that when we look at a work of art, we have an active experience. A photograph isn’t solely an object; it is an activity that happens between the world, the maker, the materials, and the viewer. A true work of art is a special, and intensified, kind of experience. My friend had an experience when she looked at my photo. It wasn’t an experience I necessarily intended, nor could I have predicted it so it wasn’t something that I alone produced. It depended on a representation of the world, yes, but also on my friend’s past experience, on our shared cultural understandings of death and privacy and grief, and on my ability to produce a coherent image that is fertile ground for such an experience. It also depends on the viewer’s willingness to actively engage with a work of art. When he or she does so, the experience of art rewards us. Dewey wrote, “Whatever path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness.”

Photographers seem to be a practical lot, often eschewing philosophical thought for action. I once asked a veteran photographer how one develops a personal style and he told me, “Don’t think about it so much. Just shoot.” It’s good advice, yet I believe we can also learn about our art by reflecting on it. If we intend to make photographs, shouldn’t we wonder why someone would look at them? We look at photographs for many reasons. We look to see unfamiliar worlds, or to see the unfamiliar in the quotidian world around us. I also think we look at photographs to deepen our experience of the common world as Dewey suggests. Seeing my photo of the memorial beside the road to Taos is not the same as having been there in the cold and the wind with the desire to both look and to look away. But the experience of seeing that photograph — not as an accurate representation of the world but as a part of the world to be experienced — has meaning of its own. Experiences of all kinds challenge us, trouble us, make us think, comfort us, excite us, and propel us to act. Why would we ask any less from photographs?

This essay first appeared in Shadow and Light Magazine, November/December 2017 issue. It is reprinted with permission of Shadow and Light. You can purchase the entire issue in which this piece appeared and can subscribe to Shadow and Light here.



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E. E. McCollum

E. E. McCollum

Photographer — film and digital — and writer, living in the American Southwest.