I had this epiphany after teaching The Photographic Voice last week with Kirsten Rian. We have been assigning our students prompts every two weeks, visual exercises aimed at getting them to see in a different way, challenge their preconceptions of what photography is, or what art is, and encourage them to shed the notion that in complexity they will find authenticity. The results have been fascinating. The assignment was to find a video, maybe on YouTube, or by another artist, and to create a set of still images inspired by moving ones.
In response, Kimi brought in these lovely small prints, in groups:
We started moving images around, grouping and ungrouping them, imagining them in color versus black and white, at different sizes, and printed on different materials.
And I realized. What I spend most of my time on now is not conceiving of photographs, but in interpreting ideas into objects. I am a translator.
I told a friend recently that a photograph is merely the first mark on a canvas. That it does not have to always be the end product, but simply a sketch, a starting point. Many of my students get wrapped up, intimidated by, fearful of the taking of photographs, while I wait for them to bring in 100 prints so we can begin the conversation about crafting something from what they’ve taken. They see the beginning of the process as what matters. I see the end, the interpretation of the idea, as what determines artistic success.
For years I’ve harped and harped about the need to study the craft of printmaking and principles that have formed this medium, from exposure, to paper, to ink, to books, to installations, to color, to sequencing, to editing, to writing, etc. Why? Why have I been so unrelenting? I realized last night that it isn’t merely because I value and respect the highest level of craftsmanship in any medium, or because I worry about practice and traditions that have held for decades not being passed down, or because I resent the laziness I see so frequently. It is that as a translator, the more languages I become fluent in, the more effective I will be at interpreting the ideas in my head to those who are viewing—whether that be in book, exhibition, online, or any other kind of viewing experience.
With Kimi’s images, we talked about the need for perfect prints, that with quiet, small, delicate objects, the craft behind them would need to be as much evidence as the composition is of the message behind this small series, the need to stop, to focus, to still the mind. We talked about possibly separating out the layers of objects, separating the sky from ground, clouds from branches, to declare them all filters of understanding. Would that mean printing on acetate? Or vellum? Should they become three-dimensional? Would there be value in making the viewer aware of the original video? If so, how? Should the prints pair vertically, horizontally, or stand alone? How can the sequence help the viewer? It’s in the answers to these questions, the translation, that will enable the viewer to understand the message more clearly, and also force the artist to assert how she wants them to be seen.
For too long we have given the camera too much power to determine what the art actually is. I see evidence of this in the obsession with equipment. It should not be the camera that determines what the art is, we should be.
After spending a century establishing the possibilities in this medium, and working toward its acceptance as fine art, might it be possible for us to now declare that we are more than mechanical technicians? Can we now free ourselves to focus on a higher plane of artistic pursuit, the real challenge being what do I have to say with these photographs?
Susan Sontag, in her essay, Against Interpretation, states, “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”
I am not advocating for forcing an interpretation of art onto viewer. What I am promoting is a better interpretation from within the individual artist—a clearer, more frequent internal dialog within ourselves, so that the decisions we make in how we present our art solidify the conceptual foundation of the work.
We aren’t taught this skill. We’re taught to focus lenses, to remove spots, to correct color, and to run nozzle checks. How many photographers can you name that experiment with materials with the same passion that sculptors do?
I’ve never taken a workshop where the instructor challenged me as to why I was presenting my images at the same size, one after another. I was challenged on this point constantly in architecture school. But really, why shouldn’t educators and reviewers question it? Why should art conform to any set standard of anything?
Part of me is resentful that we’ve been boxed into printing and exhibiting images, one after another after another. Why, instead, we haven’t been encouraged to explore the medium of storytelling to it’s fullest potential? But also, why have we succumbed to the most literal of interpretations that our cameras provide? Shame on us.
As I prepare my final prints from three different portfolios for the upcoming Fotofest portfolio review event, it is still difficult to divert from the same old presentation methods of my past. The doubts come to the surface, how will these weirdly yellow-toned images that sit next to traditional black and white ones go over? What about these small ones printed in the lower corners of the sheets? Or this page, with nothing but a single line of text? All I can do to alleviate the fear is remind myself that any success that I’ve had has come from listening to the work itself, not of those voices that tell me to comply with a given set of standards.
I’ve realized that as I progress, my interest in photography as an artistic practice is in the learning of more visual languages and in becoming a strong enough speaker in each to effectively translate the many stories I have continually flowing through my mind.
More from Houston later this week… .