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Tuesday, 17 March 2009

How not to Photograph: Pictures Fail Me

picture: Colin Pantall - Fly found on Sarwo Edhie's Dress Uniform - from the series 1965

Next up on the How Not to Photograph theme (which will go on for some time - think of it as a kind of photographic spring cleaning, an end of winter sweeping out of all the detritus that is a side effect of this blog's natural everything-is-great positivity) is Words Fail Me - for Howard and Mittelmark this is where author just says everything is "awesome", where the failure to communicate is made evident by the use of words like "amazing" and "unbelievable".

In photographic terms, this is where every picture is spectacular, where light and shade dominate, where violence erupts, where the sheer joy or misery of the event shines through, but in a meaningless catch-all generic way. It is the kind of work that makes war and hunger and poverty generic, because once you've seen it once, you've seen it a hundred times and in any case who wants to see that kind of stuff because lifestyle and celebrity sells much better in any case.

The antidote to this kind of thing is to blame images of the spectacular for what they represent, which is a chronological leap of faith. Instead, there is an emphasis on the use of the subtle, the background scenarios that created or emerged out of the poverty/hunger/war in the first place - think Tomatsu's Nagasaki and the broken watch and the melted bottle that I think looks like a hare in a butcher's window. That's the approach at its most poetic, descriptive, essential and heart-wrenching. But this approach could also be labelled Pictures Fail Me - these background events, these details are unreadable if you are not aware of exactly what they are pointing to in the first place, and the series of interiors, details and bits and pieces that are shown will leave you none the wiser. Essentially, they rely on you the viewer being familiar with the events they are documenting, a familiarity that emerges from the fickle words, available film and spectacular images they are supposed to undermine. The Pictures Fail Me approach is strictly for Preaching to the Converted. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's a good thing, but so is Preaching to the Unconverted.

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