Finish the sentence: Photography is like . . .

April 6, 2011

To continue and extend our conversation, this blog entry asks you to finish the sentence in the headline, with elaboration and explanation. I’ll go first, to get us thinking and to model the kinds of thoughts and posts I’m looking for.

As I mentioned in class, to me photography is like poetry. I love poetry; I love playing with words, and poetry is essentially wordplay. When writing students expressed to the Walt Whitman that they wanted to become poets because they “have so much to say,” Whitman wasn’t interested. When writing students said they wanted to become poets because they “love playing with language, with words,” Whitman suddenly became interested in teaching them.

Similarly, photography is ‘imageplay.’ Both poetry and photography “intensively see,” as Susan Sontag put it in her seminal work, On Photography. Much of poetry is concerned with the visual, getting us to “see” a flower, a tree, pain, loss, love, the wrinkles in a woman’s face, and to see these otherwise ordinary artifacts as we have never seen them before.

  • Think of a photograph of a degraded, wrinkled, old pumpkin? A poem about aging and decomposition, and an eloquent poem at that.
  • sutured eye socket? Vision, seeing, window to the soul? Abuse? Tragedy?
  • stuffed freezer with hyper-packaged, processed American foods a poem about the excesses of American culture, in contrast with need in most of the rest of the world?
  • A tulip about to bloom? Life! Love! Potential and Spring!

Think about how photography turns living beings — like a water buffalo or a pumpkin or dead grass — into a thing, a thing to look at. (Is the photo a record of that water buffalo or leaf, or a record of how the photographer saw that water buffalo or leaf?)

And how photography turns things into living beings —a dead leaf with veins running through it, or a water fountain. (Sontag talks about this photographic strategy on page 111, where she discusses photography’s ability to disclose “the thingness of human beings, the humanness of things.”)

Think of how many poems dignify the mundane — a flower, dead grass, a tree, an acorn, a sunset, a pretty girl, a rainy day. By calling attention to it, and describing it in such detail, the poem dignifies that object and makes a virtue of it. The mundane becomes — if for only the contemplated moment — something beautiful. This is true also in photography.

Can you think a poem that is “ugly”? A bad poem, sure, just like bad photography, but a poem or photo of something universally ugly? Nope. Photography, like poetry, beautifies, dignifies, exalts, celebrates . . . even the ugly and the mundane.

The poem cannot explain that object, but it can acknowledge it. Photography does precisely the same thing. A photo of the WTC towers cannot explain the devastation of 9-1-1, but it can and does acknowledge it. A photo of the sun deck and boat dock behind your grandmother’s house cannot explain the meaning of that place, but it can acknowledge it (and all of its sun-splashed beauty). Again, as Susan Sontag puts it, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (p. 4).

Ah, this is another possible answer: Photography is like beauty. Fleeting. Subjective. To quote Aquinas, beauty is “wholeness, harmony, radiance.” To quote James Joyce on Aquinas, “wholeness” is apprehending the object as separate from all else — as in apprehending a pair of shoes as separate from all else (editing, choosing, isolating). “Radiance” is the “whatness” of the object, the essence of that object that makes it distinctly what it is and nothing else — like the pumpkin-ness of the “ugly” pumpkins we viewed, or the “water buffalo-ness” of the water buffalo.

Oh, this is fun. And I could write like this all day long. But now it’s your turn. Photography is like . . . what?