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.