How do we look at pictures? How do we understand them when they come through our phone, when we see them on social media, when they come through a laptop screen, when we see them in a newspaper or magazine, in the window of a shop on a street, in a restaurant when they're illustrating the food we're thinking of eating, or in a cookbook when we're thinking of cooking, in a clothes catalogue, in an album, in a box of images you keep under the bed, in a gallery, on a postcard, in a photobook, at the doctor's, on a CCTV camera, in a passport, and so on.
Sometimes we look with pleasure, excitement even, sometimes an innocent delight. Much of the time we believe images both emotionally and intellectually, without question, and then sometimes we don't. They can make us angry, sad, hungry, aroused, or bored..
Pictures connect to different ideas, different histories, different cultural artefacts. They connect across time, across genre, creating wormholes into different times, different countries. An image can briing up a song, a poem an artwork, without us really realising how and why.
They build on our global knowledge - a face, a place, a natural feature can change meanings depending on who we are and where we are and what we know.
How we touch an image, how we view it, matters too. the edges, the back, the smell, the print, the projection, the slide viewer, the screen, all change what we see and feel. There's sight, there's smell, there's touch, there's sound.
There are a multitude of ways of looking at images, that result in a multitude of ways of understanding them, or feeling them. If photography is a language, it's a mix of multiple dialects with different inflections depending on who you are, where you are, and the way you're looking. And those languages cut across the senses, cut across emotional, physical, natural, or musical intelligences.
The intellectual way of looking at images is prioritised in some areas of photography. The history of photography is prioritised, the theory of photography is prioritised, a particular strand of thinking and writing about photography is prioritised. But only in some areas of photography.
It's a good way of thinking, it's a great way of thinking that makes for really interesting and beautiful work, that ties in to the incredible wealth of images in the history of professionally made, distributed, or shown photography.
It is one way of thinking however, amidst a million other ways of thinking. If you use that way of thinking wisely, to deepen our understanding, it's a great thing.
If we do the opposite and limit the understanding to one particular way of thinking and seeing, and we impose that on others like pound-shop autocrats, it's another story. Our ways of seeing become limited, the work we make becomes sterile and irrelevant, upheld only by those who have a vested interest in this limited way of thinking about, seeing and making photography.
At the back of Vincen Beeckman's latest book, Annessens (I would love to link to a place you can buy it, but who knows?), there's a short essay by Brad Feuerhelm to this effect but not quite - it's very different. But the crux of the essay is what if, instead of worrying about this or that, we just enjoy the book.
It's a lovely book. It's a bunch of pictures of a group of boys in the central Brussels suburb of Annessens having a great time through a local youth club. The photos are taken by a priest called Père Filip and show the boys in a variety of situations - doing kung fu, on the beach, riding bikes, shooting guns, flying hang-gliders, in the mountains, in Paris, all over the place.
And they do have fun in the fresh air, in an escape from the ongoing difficulties of inner-city Brussels, taken there in the camper van of Filip, a priest who defended the boys from the police, a priest who neve proselytised.
There's delight in these pictures and that's where the scope of this review ends, because I'm going to knuckle back down and enjoy them. They're great pictures from albums (not archives) I'd enjoy looking at.
But I'll come to them later from a different angle, because there are different knowledges, different experiences, different histories, different economic and social realities that kick in; and the more one is aware of the that, the better the stories become.