This is a bit heavier than my usual blog post content but this has been on my mind a lot.
Philip, a photographer friend, and I were talking (virtually of course) about how we as photographers could/should/might work in response to the pandemic, the political upheaval, social unrest ….
Both of us had been carrying a camera while walking around our respective neighborhoods. Photographs illustrating isolation, “social distancing” … are a dime a dozen. What are we not photographing? How are we not photographing.
Certain photographs, like the recent photograph of the nude woman facing down a wall of heavily armed and armored officers in Portland, will become icons -- much like the photograph of the single protestor in Tiananmen Square facing down a line of tanks – or of the sweet faced young woman putting a flower into the muzzle of a rifle at Kent State – or the horribly burned child fleeing from her napalmed village in Viet Nam. They each record a powerful, moving incident in a specific dangerous, chaotic time and place. Not knowing the time and place would be likely to make me ask “what was going on here?”
David Douglas Duncan’s “Captain Ike Fenton” does a bit more. Its anti-war message does not require you to know that it was Korea, 1950, that the company he commanded was low on ammunition, pinned down by artillery fire, and could not expect immediate help. But you know that something terrible has happened – is happening – and that this is the face of a man who has stood at the edge of the pit, looked in, and cannot turn around. It gives you enough visual cues to imagine a time and place – or maybe the specific time and place don’t matter.
But Philip was thinking more along the lines of Picasso’s “Guernica”, works that are conceived from the get-go to comment or express the artist’s response to what’s happening in the world. I would add the likes of John Heartfield’s pre-WWII anti-Nazi posters and illustrations (which resulted in him departing through a window as the Gestapo came up the stairs to his studio).
Philip’s question was what can we photographers do apart from photojournalism -- if we are not (choose to be not) eye witness to momentous events.
But that question bumps us up against one of the basic facts about photography. Photographs are spectacularly good at showing what something or someone looked like at a specific time and place but are seldom spectacularly good at showing “about”. How do photographs translate from “images of:” to “images about”?
The great Henri Cartier-Bresson, during World War II, said “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are still photographing rocks.”
Photography is not good at allegory – as evidenced by Henry Peach Robinson’s “Fading Away” -- or historical or literary references – as evidenced by Gertrude Käsebier’s “Blessed Art Thou Among Women”. George Bernard Shaw, a photographer himself, noted that “The painter gets hold of a pretty model, paints her as well as he can, calls her Juliet, and puts a nice verse from Shakespeare underneath, and the picture is admired beyond measure. The photographer finds the same pretty girl, he dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet, but somehow it is no good — it is still Miss Wilkins, the model. It is too true to be Juliet.”
I don’t have a clue how to conceive of a photograph from the get-go to comment on the pandemic, to comment on the disruptions in our cities, to comment on the apparent crumbling of our own government.