In 2013 the photographer Jerry L. Thompson published the small, but significant book Why Photography Matters. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but deals with some very important issues for anyone interested in understanding photography in a greater cultural and sociological context.
Photography matters, writes Jerry Thompson, because of how it works—not only as an artistic medium but also of a way of knowing. It matters because how we understand what photography is and how it works tell us something about how we understand everything. With his provocative observations, Thompson conducts a wide-ranging and lucid examination on why photography is unique among the picture-making arts. Thompson argues for photography as a medium concerned with understanding the world we live in—a medium whose business is not constructing fantasies pleasing to the eye or imagination but describing the world in the toughest and deepest way.
I read Why Photography Matters when it was published, but decided to read it again a short while ago, as it is sometimes challenging and often not an easy read—as I already mentioned. It’s very much a philosophical discussion, in which Thompson argues reflectively and thoroughly for a restored sense of the need and purpose of photography. As I read the book for a second time I came across a section that very much relates to the kind of photography I am often concerned about.
In understanding how a photograph renders a subject and how the photographer choose to render the subject, we learn that a photograph is not only telling what an object that is part of the image is, but also what it means—in the context of the world in which it is shown, according to Thompson.
He writes: «Photographers who care only about information might be called journalistic; their pictures need caption, and the captions often do the same work as the pictures, though with less visual impact the way museums-labels for “difficult” artwork does. Photographers who care only about how the picture looks might be called pictorialists; their pictures need captions no more than a symphony needs a “program” or story the music can be thought to tell. The richest, most fully realized photography is made by those who work somewhere in the middle».
This very much resonates with my thinking—and what I teach in my workshops. For a photograph to captivate an audience, it needs to be more than just «beautiful», just as it needs to be more than just «depicting» what is. A captivating photo needs to tell a story, and as such not only the obvious superficial content that makes up some subject matter, but more so on a deeper and more connective emotional level. In addition the graphics elements, the light and composition, needs to enhance and help telling the story, whether it’s a straightforward story or a more intangible expression.
One major concern for Jerry Thompson is that a photographer takes his or her time when working a subject. Only then are you able to find the link between what it is you want to tell and what it all means, as well as how most powerfully telling that story, through composition and what you choose to keep in or out of the frame.
Photographically speaking, do you regard yourself mostly as a journalist or mostly as a pictorialist—or something in between? Do you even think it’s important?