Monday, March 22, 2010

Reflecting on "Regarding the Pain of Others" (Susan Sontag)

He never found a great deal of interest in photography.

Maybe once upon a time... They were all in photography club in 4th grade (at the time, pronounced /fo-to-graffy/), had fun with it - they put together two compositions for media fair. They put a great deal of effort into the first - stomping all over the fields, looking for the just right angle, framing, light, etc - and called it "Nature's Shadows and Silhouettes". And they were quite proud. At the last minute, they also slapped together a piece that was a series of photos taken of Matt, out camping, holding his walking stick - the first was the feet and ankles, then knees and waist, and so forth on up. They took 2 sets of these, pasted them to both sides of a series of pieces of card stock attached at the edges - the end result was an accordion book they called "Play With Matt." They thought it was stupid and fun.

The judges hated the first and loved the second.

Flash forward to any time spent in a museum. Photography just wasn't interesting. It seemed too exact, too easy, too representational?... He had a course on 'problems of representation', with a focus on impressionists (and some on the fauvists and cubists) and relating this to literary visual representations. This was interesting, complicated, and hard.

And now to Sontag. Photography was opened up for him again. (And it becomes apparent how little thought went into this before...) The point-of-view of the camera became more significant to his eyes. He became interested.... in the manipulations, the tricks, the tactics, what was shown as well as what wasn't. For example - this photo found at (3/19/10) is awesome in this regard.
The exploded pieces of rocket are theatrically reunited, with the soldier pointing them out for the sake of oblivious viewers. And - the camera is visible as a shadow in the bottom center. This is a perfect war photograph, I think.

Sontag writes -
Goy's images are a synthesis. They claim: things like this happened. In contrast, a single photograph or filmstrip claims to represent exactly what was before the camera's lens. A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show.

Here, a worthwhile borrow from Aristotle. The photograph shows by its exacting nature - it is what it is. However, its meta is crucial, the context of "speaker" and "listener", ie whoever chose the content of the photo and their intention, and the interpretation of the photo by the viewer. This is how the photo evokes. Truly then, in the most literal sense, photographs are two-dimensional in what they show, and only become three dimensional when understood (superficially) or analyzed and understood (with depth, to avoid the manipulation so often implicit in a photo's effort to evoke).

In his efforts to draw, he emphasized sketching - representing an idea, mood, place, moment - not so exactingly as truthfully, and quickly. Emphasis on the quickly. A roommate recently brought home a book of photography published by a friend, and one of the reasons he gave for liking them was that they captured a moment and mood that he identified with.... setting aside the "identified with" part, there is a lot to be said for the moment and mood. Credit to the roommate for offering another perspective on the value and enjoyment of photography.

Back to the judges, then. "Play with Matt" was probably seen by them as a piece of childish fun and wisdom. Wasn't it? It was momentary, creative, interactive. Creative in two senses... that it was unconventional against the other items on display, and creative in that the viewer was also very obviously and physically a manipulator, and could create different pieces by playing. AND - could create their own point-of-view. Each photo in itself almost had no point-of-view, at least, what it had didn't say much. In fact, it's almost as if the only point-of-view that mattered was that chosen by the viewer. Hmm.

And so he finds a path back to being interested by photography. This passed through Sontag's book and was even a little spurred on by her, but in the end she seems to throw out the previous 100 pages of effort and arrives at "Have you not been in a war? Then you wouldn't understand these anyway." Which seems remarkably disappointing, even trite.

He hasn't finished thinking through if it stops here.

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