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Friday, 12 September 2008

What can we learn from these pictures?

pcture: Larry Sultan

A few months ago, somebody said to me "What can we learn from these pictures?"

It's a bewildering question that presupposes so much, in particular that the purpose of photography is education learning.

But it's not. Photography doesn't teach us anything. It can show us things, it can make us revel in the beauty and the horror of it all, it can create emotional links between what we see and the lives we lead, the world around us, but why should we
expect it to teach us something. Even photography that comes in a book, with words, like Larry Sultan's Pictures From Home, doesn't teach us anything. But it does make us feel, it ties in ideas of land and home and family and creates a historical backdrop against which we can conjure up our own version of the truth.

Martin Parr once said that "All photography is propaganda" and he's absolutely right once you flip that round so that it becomes "All photography is true". But it's a truth that is visceral, emotional, non-rational and connects to a socialised visual reading, the same kind of reading that made Pieter Hugo say that "If you really want to know about anything - a war, a place, a person - you go read a book, right? You don't look at a photograph."

So if you want to learn the nitty-gritty of post-war migration to California, the who, where, when and why, go search the history section of your local library or do the simple thing and google it.

But that won't tell you about the cultural history of the migration, about the home, work and family and the disappointments of success or even what success really is. Larry Sultan's book won't tell you about that either, but it will lead you into places where you can feel the history in a way that words and statistics never can.

And it will do that because a photograph or a painting can touch us in places words can never reach. Pieter Hugo's hyena pictures, for example, don't teach me anything apart from a little footnote that guys in Nigeria make money with hyenas - I didn't know that before he came along. But the images have a level of uncertainty, a power and an elemental sense of rawness that combines with the post-apocalyptic nature of developing urban environments that carries them way beyond the bare socio-economic bones of how these people lead their lives.

And that is the way with all photography. It doesn't teach us anything, most of the time what it shows is blindingly obvious - teenage girls worry about their bodies, industrial structures are both ugly and beautiful, alcoholic parents create domestic mayhem and so on.

The work doesn't teach us anything, but why should it. It takes us to places we might normally not go and interweaves unconscious elements in ways that are far richer than any linear written narrative can do.


Stan B. said...

Et tu, Colin? Picking on the art world's poor, bastard stepchild? Photography can't teach, it's an outright fraud, a born liar, a conniving, plotting misanthrope!

Actually, I've had a pint or two and don't disagree with a word you've said... But aint it true of every art form- or as Mr. Picasso once said, "Art is a lie that reveals the truth."

Come to think of it, one photograph did learn this yung un a most valuable lesson at a very impressionable age. The Weegee photograph of the girl smiling for the camera as her boyfriend lay beside her unconscious and nearly drowned- no caption needed. I think probably every photographer has one of those somewhere back there in their collective unconscious. Put 'em altogether and that's a whole heap a'learnin'.

colin pantall said...

Hi Stan - the collective unconscious you mention is the key and exactly what I mean.

It's a good thing that photography can't teach in the limited didactic way that Weegee definitely does not do. Instead he weegees his image into your impressionable young mind and settles in a corner where the girl smiles out for you.

It's a whole lot of learning, but what you learn is down to you and is vague, indeterminate and emerges from your heart and your soul. Weegee isn't doing the teaching, you're doing it yourself in a strange, ineffable non-rational manner.

Which is a good thing!

Nicht wahr?

Stan B. said...

Asi es!

colin pantall said...