On Photography (again)

Since I am both the designated and self-designated photographer of this lengthy adventure, I have, over the past few months, devoted a good deal of energy learning about the possibilities of, and the skills necessary for photographing in a now-dominated-by-digital world. My last camera, a sturdy single-lens reflex Canon E05, was stolen last year. Humiliated by my inadvertent agency in its disappearance (I’d carefully packed it in my handy durable neon orange suitcase; the airline baggage carriers in Bilbao “lost” the bag), I’d not yet purchased a replacement.

We started with a pilgrimage to B&H Photo on 34th and 9th. Danny had never been, and found amusement in its cornucopia of imaging gadgets, from film projectors to televisions to drones on which to load a camera so you can shoot aerial images with a remote; most stations are tended to by kindly, immensely knowledgeable Orthodox Jews. We decided upon the head-spinningly smart new mirrorless Sony (mirrorless means less weight, a good thing when on the road), which captures “full-frame” images as data-dense as anyone, professional or amateur, could possibly need. In one image, tiniest details in dark dark shadows appear alongside bright white sunny skies – a big boon when shooting architecture, and life. The improbably-named Christopher, our lens salesperson, also introduced me to an image processing program (not Photoshop) which corrects for perspectival distortion, along with offering a raft of other possible, more radical edits – turn that red room green! Transform daylight into night! – in which I have no interest, and for which I have no need.

Along with learning, thinking. Thinking, thinking, wondering what a photograph is for. About the divergence of its meanings for its viewers and its maker. About its distortions, lies, and omissions (which I’ve written about, most recently in Welcome to Your World). And thinking also through that long-settled debate, namely, can a photograph rise to the level of fine art? Or should we ghettoize even artsy photographs (Gernd and Hilla Becher, for example) as little more than prettied-up documentation? Most would consider these questions anachronistic, but they remain salient for me for two reasons: because of how I choose my subjects, and because my beloved Danny believes that photographs, even staged ones such as those by Cindy Sherman or Gregory Crewdson, rarely rise to the level of art.

Photography has been woven into my life since high school, even more so since college, because the subjects of my writing demand as much. Can’t mean without them. Yet you must always write as though the photograph wouldn’t exist, because a writer exacts little to no control over what images will or won’t get published. (Begging helps a little. Money helps a little more.)

Like anyone carrying a camera, I leave countless moments and images behind. In my case, many of these foregone possibilities are ones that any good travel photographer would snap, often for documentary purposes. Here’s what the Brygge in Bergen looks like. The Queen Mary II, docked beside it. Danny here! Gideon there!

No. Take the seagull that figured in my first Lofoten Islands entry: I considered shooting it, but then demurred, thinking that photographs so distort scale that my picture would likely fail to illustrate my observation about the immense size of Nordic gulls in comparison with East Coast ones.

Usually I am trying to get people out of my pictures. In Norway even more so. Why? These mountains and fjords and waterfalls loom over us, and over time; they’ve remained steadfast through centuries. People? They come, then they go.

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Life lived behind a viewfinder becomes a life slowed down. I’m often imagining frames around moments, constantly on the hunt for the right composition. (That’s the only way that the otherwise-too-violent nomenclature of “shooting” a picture makes sense.) What, then, constitutes my right composition? For now: the horizon line must must must be perpendicular to the vertical edge of the frame. Repetitive patterns of one type (wood slats) abutting patterns of another type (rock slabs) are ever-alluring. Colors: white orchids and purple curtains in tiny gray windows;

 

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black, rust, and thin green lichen on rocks;

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deeply saturated ochre, barn-red, and pink paint on buildings;

DSC00536_DxOclouds and sky at different times of day. In landscapes, I’ve been gravitating toward imbalanced compositions – one side in deep shadow, the other suffused with rosy hues. DSC00464_DxO-1 - Copy - Copy

Photographing buildings, my predilection for symmetry surprises me, but it’s not always possible.

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And always, I wait for the late afternoons, with their strong, warm light, full of contrasts and ethereal promise.

In taking a photograph, I often wonder, am I creating a memory or preserving it? Both, I suppose. And if the former, then what kind of memory? Maybe even false memories. I’m entertaining the possibility of basking in the ignorance of presuming that Joẑef Plečnik built a nice little cinema in Bergen, rather than doing the right thing (research) to actually find out.

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In the spring of 1991 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I stood on the banks of the Brahmaputra River regarding the hand-hewn wooden boats, the late afternoon sun glinting off rippled water, the men in their lungis hauling nets of fish onto the docks, and I thought: this is beautiful, and real. I reached for the camera hanging around my neck, looked into the viewfinder, and realized that the picture I was about to shoot couldn’t possibly capture the experience of standing there. For one reason if not for many: stench. Accompanying the visual enticements was the stench of dead fish, the stench feces — human, animal, whatever; the stench of rotting organic manner washed up on the riverbanks. What this picture will show, I mused, is visual beauty; what it will hide is noxious acridity.

Shot anyway. It’s a picture I treasure.

— Sarah, 25 July 2017

One thought on “On Photography (again)

  1. I am sitting on my balcony (okay fine, it’s a fire escape) watching the sun set and reading your beautiful writing and wishing I could discuss the topic of photography as art with you and Danny over an apple and smooth peanut butter. I am a very poor photographer and have studied it very little but I love the experience of looking at a photograph or rather trying to figure out what experience the photographer was trying to share. I think what is so interesting about photography is not what you capture but what you intentionally omit. That is the part you can control and that to me is where the artistry comes in. It’s fascinating that you try to capture your images without people, and it tells me a little about how you see and explore the places you visit, how you’d like others to see them. With every photo you choose to exclude something a slight zoom out or a turn to the right or left would include. I think most artists are trying to lend you their eyes in one way or another by creating something thing that captures something about the way they see the world. I think the art in photography is in its extraordinary ability to isolate and exclude. I could take a photo of my veiw right now and leave out any evidence of the fire escape, I’d probably try to capture the almost black silhouette of the leaves on my block against the dark blue and orange sky. I wonder if the photo would feel like it was taken from a balcony or a fire escape, if the truth or the feeling would come through stronger, I don’t know. I know I have loved uncovering the hints each of your photos gives me about how you see the world, and I know I miss you all very much. ~Written on an iPhone please forgive any mistakes

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