05 December 2013

The trouble with photographs

The trouble with bad art, Tom Stoppard claimed, is that the artist knows exactly what he’s doing. The trouble with that claim is that not knowing what you’re doing doesn’t guarantee you’ll make good art. If it did, I’d be making good art every time I photographed something.

On the far side of the valley, misty rain hangs gloomy in the gullies around Zigzag Road, wraps itself around old macrocarpas and broken pines and scrubby kanuka, softens the morning, softens the ground that’s been drying and hardening as spring rushes towards summer. Some urge compels me to step outside to try to capture the mood of the morning in a photograph. I’ve tried this before—to make a photograph that accurately evokes this particular rainy-morning mood—but every attempt has left me dissatisfied. This time I think I’ve come close, but the thing with photographs is that they need time before their worth—or worthlessness—can be assessed reliably.
Sometimes a photograph excites me immediately. Later, after having looked at it frequently, or after not having looked at it all, maybe for weeks, I’ll open it and study it and be unimpressed. Sometimes I’ll even cringe: is my judgement that bad? Did I know what I was doing?

It’s tempting to say the reason for this inability to immediately assess a photograph remains a mystery, but if it is, the mystery isn’t complete. One obvious reason is that initial impressions are always coloured by the memory of what was photographed—one sees not just the photograph but the image in memory, which we now know is horribly unreliable. But recent memories are likely to be more accurate than older memories; more to the point, they’re more comprehensive than older memories, so when we look at a photograph soon after its creation, the things that excited us enough to make the photograph will be remembered more clearly and comprehensively than if we look at the photograph a few weeks later. Consequently, the photograph evokes a more comprehensive set of uplifting memories. A problem with this reasoning, however, is that sometimes an initially uninspiring photograph will look better after a period of forgetting. Maybe one forgets the feelings that initially detracted from the photograph? Plausible (perhaps), but I’m unconvinced.

Another reason is that how one responds to a photograph will almost certainly be coloured by one’s mood. The Online Photographer’s Mike Johnston noticed this about his perceptions of music and wondered whether the same could be said about photographs; I, like some of those who commented, imagine this to be indubitable. No one’s mood remains constant—or, if it does, they fall into one of three types: saints, arseholes, and the pathologically boring—so one’s response to a photograph might also be expected to fluctuate. While this reason at least has the advantage that it explains equally well why a photograph can eventually look better or worse than it did at first, it fails to explain why the impression of a photograph seems eventually to settle down, or at least not change as wildly as sometimes happens after that initial period.

So, I’m taking a risk with this photograph, which hasn’t yet matured enough to persuade me it does what my early impressions tell me it does. I know some people will see gloom, depression, and miserable weather—which does NOT mean those people are necessarily gloomy, depressed, and miserable—and perhaps a year from now I’ll see that in this photograph too. Now, however, I see hints of wildness and solitude, hints of the kind of weather that keeps the red dust of the world from settling, and that suggests the possibility of being able to disappear, to walk out of the hectic world. This, I suppose, is the difference between a literal and a metaphorical viewing of a photograph. Others would call it romanticism, or worse, but that’s their prerogative. I’ll take comfort in the thought that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing.

1. Tom Stoppard’s claim — cited by Clive James (2008) on p. 787 of Cultural Amnesia, New York: Norton.  
2. ‘“Red dust'” is a Buddhist cliché for sensation’ — Red Pine (Bill Porter) (2000), on p. 110 of his translation of The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.
1 & 2. Two attempts about five minutes apart. A slight difference in feel.
Photos and original text © 2013 Pete McGregor