Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877) I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World...
Wednesday, 17 May 2017
Dear Photography Advice, I like pictures. What can I do?
Dear Photography Advice
I am really worried about my taste in photography. The worries began when I discovered that I enjoyed looking at pictures. Not all pictures of course. I don't like pictures by people who have basic human failings in life or use photography for criminal intent. But that's life and not photography.
In photography I like pictures if they're good, or if they kick up an impact and have a bit of depth to them. I know that's ok when it's Art in a Gallery or a film in a cinema or a book on a shelf - we all know you're allowed to like that - but when I started to enjoy ordinary photographs on a wall, or in a book, or on a screen, I began to wonder if there wasn't something wrong with me.
To try and cure my problem, I tried some photography aversion therapy. I read a book that I was told would change my mind about some of my favourite photographers, but at the end of it I found I liked them even more. I felt so dirty knowing that I was liking pictures of people like Diane Arbus. She had raped with her camera yet here I was liking her. Worse than that even, I didn't believe that she had raped with her camera.
The other week I went to a photojournalism exhibition where all the so-called greats of news reporting over the years were gathered with all the dirty tricks they use to grandstand there in plain sight. I fully expected to feel a deep seated disgust at these pictures knowing that they are part of a sea of images which have been ripped from their historic roots to become part of a detached spectacle that devalues and degrades us all. But still I enjoyed it. I loved it despite all those voices telling me I shouldn't. I tried to believe what I was told I should believe but found myself unable to. Of course I can fake it at the right times, but I'm scared I might be found out. And worse still, I really don't care that much about what I'm supposed to think. Is it only me, or are there a bunch of people out there all pretending to be really interested in critical photography theory - when really they're not?
I felt I had something to hide. I tried to repress these feelings of curiosity and pleasure, and repeated what the people who were trying to help me said, but it only got worse. I went to see one of those degraded works (and I'm not going to say who it was by because it's just too disgusting!) where sound and scale and location are used to make a spectacle of the subjects that are photographed. The exhibition room was packed and people were rapt and visibly touched. I was infected by this mass hysteria and I enjoyed it, no matter what people who know better than me said. Yes, I took pleasure in other people's suffering, and to my utter shame it didn't feel like that was what I was doing. I was moved by it, and this touching of my soul remained with me as I left the venue and beyond.
I didn't really care that the artist had photographed from a distance with a frighteningly expensive camera. I didn't care that he hadn't talked with his subjects. Worse still, I didn't think that would have been remotely as interesting.
In fact I forgot it was a photographic work, I forgot that enjoying looking at things is wrong. I found that Mosse's (yes it was Richard Mosse's Incoming - I didn't want to say his name but there, I let it slip, now you know the worst) giant sensation-filled spectacle told me something about migration that I not heard or seen before. How wrong of me to think that. How wrong of me to enjoy it! How much easier it would be if it were a film like Casablanca, or the Sound of Music, where you are allowed to look and consider and see and enjoy and somehow think more deeply of what really matters.
Worse was to come though. I went to Manchester and saw some giant pictures by Bruce Gilden. I had almost persuaded myself that Bruce Gilden was a bad man who exploits people and never took up that scholarship he'd been offered at the Lausanne Finishing School for Rude Street Photographers, but then I found myself actually going wow, while these people's lives were being destroyed by my looking. I even found the pictures quite heroic in their scale and the directness of the gaze. Worse of all, I found my wife and my daughter were enjoying them too. I had passed on my sick disease.
Please, please, please can you help me. I am really upset not to be pained by these images. I feel I am part of a populist mass who take pleasure in photographs. What can I do!