Tell or Show – or Both?


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?

The Heart of Photography

I have been pondering over what photography is. I mean really is. New technology has completely changed the idea of photography, from a mechanical/chemical device that would record reality to something much more complex. With digital technology and ever more advancements when it comes to digital tools available for the photographer, it gets more and more complicated to define what photography truly is. Particularly for me, working mainly in the genre of documentary photography, I find it troublesome to set limits for what is acceptable and not. The old saying «a photograph doesn’t lie», is simply not true any more. Even the idea that photography captures reality has become challenged by postmodern believe systems. According to some postmodern thinkers a photograph is not a picture of something that is real – but a picture of the idea of something real, or even a picture of pictures we have been accustomed to believe in through generations. Pictures exist on their own terms.

It was all so much easier when I started to photograph, long time ago – too long I might add. You put a film in your camera, and turned the camera towards something you wanted to photograph. The film recorded the «thing» and then got developed to make the image of the «thing» visible. Not so any more. A «thing» you see in a photograph might not even exist at all, but might have been completely constructed in a computer. The question then is whether this is a photograph or not. And more profoundly; what is finally a photograph? And does it even matter whether we define photography or not? Again for me – being a documentary photographer – it does matter. If viewers of my pictures don’t believe in what I show them in the images, then there is no point for me to even be doing what I am doing.

What is photography? We all know the literal meaning of the word. The word «photography» was created from the Greek roots photos – «light» and graphé – «representation by means of lines» or «drawing», which together gives the meaning «drawing with light». But that doesn’t help much these days where no light might enter a computer or be part of a mathematical equation to construct what appears to be a photograph in the traditional sense of the word.

Even a definition, that I for a long time thought came down to the core of photography, isn’t really relevant any more. In 1963 the French philosopher, Hubert Damisch, who specialised in aesthetics and art history, said this about photography: «Theoretically speaking, photography is nothing other than a process of recording, a technique of inscribing, in an emulsion of silver salts [or on an image sensor], a stable image generated by ray of lights.» For Damisch it was important that in the definition of photography, one didn’t include the dependency of a camera nor that it implied that an object or a scene from the external world was depicted in the image. When I first read this definition, I thought it was ingenious. But these days; is it still good enough? Damisch’ definition will clearly exclude any computer generated imagery. Then maybe that is exactly why it’s still valid – because computer generated imagery is not photography? I don’t know and I certainly don’t have the answer. By the way, I added the part about image sensor in the quote above, to make it valid even for today when most images are recorded digitally. For me personally it doesn’t make much different whether I shoot on film or digitally. That for me is only a matter of aesthetics and work flow.

A lot of the postmodern ideas rose exactly as a consequence of the new technology. With new technology came new thoughts. One of the foremost exponents for the postmodern thinking was the late Susan Sontag. Her book On Photography is a standard, classic reading for anyone who wants to dig into a more theoretical approach to photography. She brings many interesting ideas to the table, and looks at photography with a critical eye. First time I read the book, I took many of her thoughts to my heart, but at the same time many of Sontag’s statements troubled me, too. In many ways she took away the beauty and validity of photography as I knew it. For instance about Walker Evans – a photographer I believe is one of the greatest ever – she wrote: «Evans wanted his photographs to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent”. The moral universe of the 1930s being no longer ours, these adjectives are barely credible today. Nobody demands that photography be literate. Nobody can imagine how it could be authoritative. Nobody understands how anything, least of all a photograph, could be transcendent.» For me these are presuppositions I can’t agree to; I certainly believe that a photograph can be literate, authoritative and transcendent. Thus it was with great pleasure I read the book Why Photography Matters by Jerry L. Thompson, a working photographer who also writes about photography, in which he refutes Sontag’s degradation of Evans’ photography. He writes: «The repeated nobody in Sontag’s assertion suggest a fashion of ideas. Fashion rejects the old or familiar not because it no longer has meaning and use, but simply because it’s old and familiar.» Thompson points to the fact that exactly what she says Evans’ photos are not, her own statement is. And he goes on: «Sontag has confused the pictures with her own understanding of them, taking for the same two things which are in fact other. She has projected her own radical contemporaneity – her firm solidarity with those in present-day know who stand against nobodys – onto the ideal construction she takes to be slaves of fashion.» Let me add – for the sake of transparency – that Thompson worked as Walker Evans’ principal assistant from 1973 to Evans’ death in 1975.

Manipulations of photos aren’t something that has come with digital technique. It has always been carried out. Just for the fun of it – and not because it’s a good photo in any way; here is a photo of a sunshine I took back in 1974 – when I was starting to explore the then for me new and fascinating media of photography. The sunset was captured on slide film. But the seagulls aren’t real. I drew them on a piece of paper, photographed the drawing with slide film – and sandwiched the two. Manipulation and using mixed media decades before digital imagery had become public domain.
Manipulations of photos aren’t something that has come with digital technique. It has always been carried out. Just for the fun of it – and not because it’s a good photo in any way; here is a photo of a sunshine I took back in 1974 – when I was starting to explore the then for me new and fascinating media of photography. The sunset was captured on slide film. But the seagulls aren’t real. I drew them on a piece of paper, photographed the drawing with another piece of slide film – and sandwiched the two. Manipulation and using mixed media decades before digital imagery had become public domain.
Susan Sontag wrote On Photography before the digital era, and much have changes since then. Most significantly the many ways a photograph may be manipulated. As already mentioned what appears to be a photograph, does not even have to be an image of something that actually exists. One of the five characteristics of photography, the thing itself, that John Szarkowski wrote about in his classical book The Photographer’s Eye is no longer a requirement: «The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it; unless he did, photography would defeat him.» A photographer doesn’t have to deal with the actual – the real world – any more. She can construct it any she wants.

Where does that leave photography today? What is photography in a time when boundaries between crafts are dissolving? Maybe we need to look at photography with new eyes – not be bound by old definitions. One way of seeing photography that I have come to cherish I found in Dan Winters’ book Road to Seeing published earlier this year: «Photographs are one of mankind’s most profound expressions of stillness. They allow us the ability to hold time in our hands and facilitate a merging with time that exists in no other form.»

I will continue this discussion about what photography is next week. But in the meant time; what do you think?