I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
Wednesday, 12 November 2014
Seeing 3,000 Pictures and Remembering One
In light of the other week's post on photographic muzak, I asked a couple of people (er, my wife and daughter) who had walked through Bath city centre in the morning what pictures they remembered. They came up with two - one was a Red Cross advert on a bus, the other was an advert on a pub (not in Bath City Centre) showing a happy couple asking if people would be interested in running the pub. The happiness of the picture was at odds with the words and the backdrop. That's why it got remembered. That's all they came up with. One picture each.
On their walk through Bath, they probably passed around 3,000 photographs. They remembered one of them! One out of 3,000. Of course, some of the pictures they passed are not designed to be remembered, they work on more cumulative, subliminal levels, some of them are not shown well, and most of them are illustrative (they definitely would have walked past around 500 photographs in estate agent's windows) and designed to be looked at rather than seen.
But still, the photographs were all there and even if they weren't consciously remembered, some of them went in by other means, and some of them are even designed to go in through other means. They will have been noticed on some level.
Then yesterday I found myself looking at the Pastoral work of Alexander Gronsky. It was online and click, click, click I went, skimming over the surface of the pictures, spending a few seconds at most on each.
It was another example of pictures not getting noticed. Here they are fine landscape/documentary images of the highest order (look at Norilsk. Amazing). They have a visual heritage that ties right into Atget and they are fantastic, but the problem is the same. They are appearing on a platform that begs you not to stop, to consider or to think. You dismiss them.
I write a lot about photobooks on this blog. Gronsky made a book of this work and he did it for a reason. The purpose of photobooks (if they are any good at all) is to make the viewer take some time over an image, to consider where it's come from, where it's going, to revel in its aesthetic glory, to touch on the world outside, to make links and connections between art, history and ideas.
That's the point of half the writing on photography as well; it examines and tries to link photography to art, to process, to psychology, to ethics, to add a dimension to a two-dimensional bit of paper or a no-dimension scrunch of bytes.
Making people stop and consider an image is not something limited to any medium then. It's central to all photography, it's central to all art, it's central to writing. How do you get people to stop.
And that's what this piece by Francis Hodgson is about. It's about the marks we make on paper, how we make an image stick in a tactile sense almost. Does photography work like art? Artist, Ian Mckeever, thinks not.
“A photograph”, said Ian McKeever that day, “is at its maximum position at the very moment it is made. [Afterwards] it can only ever be less than that…so a photographer is left with a dilemma: how to extend the language. The painter has a year or two in which to inflect meaning into what he’s doing. The question becomes how does the photographer bring that to the photograph?” And McKeever’s answer, clearly felt, although never in fact stated outright, was that he can’t.
Hodgson disagrees and argues that the fine print is something designed to hold the viewer.
I’ve argued that the whole Pictorialist tendency contained at root a kind of campaign for viewers to be held longer on the surface of photographs than has been the norm in news, or advertising or topography or any of the one of the dominant zones of photography. Maybe it was not always mark making, but certainly mark-imitating. Interesting surfaces will do, if you can’t have marks upon them or seemingly upon them. Anything which counters the tendency in viewers to see a photograph as a single rectangular frameful of information can help to slow the viewer’s mind within a photograph.
He goes on to talk about how dimension, eye movement, attention grabbing and composition attract attention. Hodgson has a background in and a specific interest in the photographic print, but the key idea is, if a photograph is something that we want people to invest time and energy in (and we don't always), how do we get them to do that, especially when we view them on the computer.
Sooner or later photographs will become rare as physical objects. On screens, photographs never have those marks: unless … somebody has put them there on purpose. And that’s where we began. It’s not really about mark-making as such. It’s just making marks or finding ways to imitate them is one of the very best ways to keep the eye of the viewer where you want it. And once you’ve done that, you can begin to say whatever it is you have to say. But you’ve got to find a way to keep the viewer from sliding off your photograph.
Read the whole piece here.