The Art Of Seeing

Pictures are everywhere, you just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy. Good photography is not about ‘Zone Printing’ or any other Ansel Adams nonsense; It is simply a function of noticing things and reacting to them, hopefully, without preconception. Nothing more. It’s about seeing. You either see, or you don’t. The rest is academic”.

 – Elliott Erwitt –

Once, I dated a psychologist. Briefly. She would throw me, unexpectedly, bizarre questions and then delight herself in analyzing my answers, detailing the negative aspects of my personality. We were watching football on television when she asked: “What position in the field would you prefer to play”? I should have known what was coming… Instead, without the slightest sign of hesitation, I responded: “I would prefer to be the commentator in the box, high above the field, watching and attempting to predict the patterns of play”. Naturally this meant that I was antisocial, aloof, an egotist, a voyeur of life rather than a participant. Because she was probably right I was even more irritated. Certainly, that is how I see my relationship to the medium of photography. Not so much as a participant, more of an enthusiastic commentator on the “game”.

So, with your approval, I would like to make a few general observations on the relationship between art and life in contemporary photography.

The question is this: “What relationship does a personal life have on an individual’s photographs, and vice versa”? The answer can be amazingly succinct: Life and art should have everything to do with each other. In practice, as I view the medium of art photography from my outsider position, art and life have very little connection. In fact, I think this is the central problem in photography at the present time. First, a simple example: While living in England, I attended a press conference at a college with David Hurn, a Magnum photographer. The students had prepared for his visit by mounting an exhibition of their work. As the conference progressed, they increasingly asked: “…But what about our photographs”? Eventually, the question had to be answered. Hum’s response was: “They are incredibly boring: When I look at a young photographer’s images I expect to feel jealous because he/ she has access to subject, life-styles, places, people that are closed to me, because of my age and who I am. Where is an expression of your uniqueness? You have only photographed what I, and any other professional, could have, or have already, photographed”! It was a good point. Students are taught, by implication, that their photographs must make reference to current stylistic trends, because that is what so-called “significant photographers” are doing. Life itself? Irrelevant.

A few years ago, a teaching position became vacant at the O.C.A. in Toronto. Forty applicants submitted work. Fifteen photographers, from all over Canada, submitted images of bushes, at night, lit by flash, in color! Trends, nowadays, are so short-lived that this fact could be used to identify the exact year  (and even the time of year) when the applications and portfolios were submitted: What magic suddenly made bushes so relevant to the lives of so many photographers? Why was the burning desire to picture bushes so rapidly and simultaneously extinguished? I am sure you can all think of similar short-lived trends: the urge to record the corners of nondescript rooms, garages and motel lobbies, for example… All relevant to personal lives? I do not believe it. In the art of photography personal lives have become irrelevant. Appearance of the image is all.

However, photography is, or at least should be, the end product of someone caring about something “out there”. The best photographs exude this caring attitude in a manner which is not definable but which is very evident. Lewis Hine, for example, was not interested in promoting himself as an artist-photographer but he did care deeply about the plight of children who were employed in dangerous environments under conditions of slave labour. He began working for the Child Labour Committee in 1907 and his photographs, badly reproduced in such tiny images that they often seem swamped by text, and were published in The American Child. He recognized that words would tell the story, but that his photographs could make the story dramatically real. He cared, and it showed. But this caring for the subject is not the prerogative of such emotionally charged themes as child labour. Stephen Dalton obviously has a passion for, and deep knowledge of, insects. His technically amazing, and aesthetically beautiful, images of insects ooze a love for bugs even to those who have an aversion to the little beasts themselves.

Other examples would be superfluous because all good photographers have a deep commitment to, and involvement with, their subjects, and through photography they are communicating their understanding and passion to others. If nothing out there is utterly absorbing then a good photographer cannot exist. If the photographer is communicating a personal passion in something, anything, through the pictures, then the images are also revealing, incidentally, a great deal about the photographer as well as the subject. His/ her attitude to life is evident. On a simple level this fact is explicable merely because a photographer’s choice of subject matter can be revealing of personality as well as interests. At a deeper level, the issue becomes more profound. A body of work by a photographer begins to reflect back to the viewer the author’s relationship not only to the subject but also to a unique life-attitude.

This cannot be injected into a photograph by intent. Style is not like a filter which when placed over the lens will affect the image. Too many young photographers shoot a sleeping drunk in a doorway to show they care: In actuality, it usually shows the opposite. A unique style emerges in photography by ignoring it, concentrating on the subject, and allowing care, passion and knowledge to bubble to the surface through a lot of hard work over a long period of time. That is why the best photographs are truly reflective of the photographers. The pictures become extensions of the person and it is evident that a personal style has emerged, which cannot be confused with the works of any other.

This is not difficult to understand; it is clearly evident in the style of writers, poets or musicians. Style in photography operates in exactly the same way, in spite of this medium being more closely linked to reality. There is no paradox in the close link between a life-attitude and a discussion of style: In the same way that the subject matter reflects areas of interest, so a photographer’s style reflects his life attitude. For example, Don McCullin is probably the greatest war photographer the medium has yet known. His subject matter is depressing to put it mildly. Starving refugees, bombed children, mutilated civilians, dying soldiers, terror-struck families and decaying corpses seem as though they should be extremely depressing images by a masochistic voyeur. Yet, look at a large number of McCullin’s horrific images and another deeper impression emerges to counteract the first shock reaction. The photographs, en masse, exude a dignity, pride of spirit and commitment to human values under the extreme test of their endurance. They are inspiring, and in spite of the subject matter, elevate the spirits and reaffirm or even elevate the hope of humanity. And that is the mark of a great photographer. All great photographs are made at this interface between reality and subjective response. They are personal and objective simultaneously.

So, the question of most relevance to all young photographers is this: what are you interested in, what excites, intrigues, moves, fascinates and energizes you? What could cause you to wake up with a sense of excitement about the coming day? But often the student cannot respond… The very notion seems preposterous. Formal education (in photography) has a lot to answer for. We have legitimized, sanitized, academized, the medium until we are left with issues not substance, critical stances not action. We have encouraged the mimicking of already dead images, like XIX century painters who spent years copying Greek statuary. We might as well try to take pictures of life using a camera with no lens… The umbilical cord between life and art has been severed. And academic art photography is dying. I’m in favour of euthanasia to put the patient out of its miserable existence.

And that is such a negative note on which to end. 

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About Mauro Metallo

A Writer and Photographer equally at home in Italy and in Canada.

4 responses to “The Art Of Seeing”

  1. davecandoit says :

    Wow, fascinating read, Mauro, thanks. I can really identify with your thoughts here, since as an amateur photographer (hardly comfortable using the word “photographer,” actually) I am still trying to find my “voice.” While I do enjoy my photos, I also recognize they are hardly original. At this moment in time that doesn’t concern me too much, since I’m still in the very early stages of my “education.” One day, no doubt, I’ll look back on my early photos and cringe — at least I hope I will, since this will mean I’ve grown out of that stage. Shooting really original photos takes knowledge, experience and confidence, in my opinion. I have little of all three, but that’s not a negative, it’s just being honest. We all have to start at the start, right? The way I look at it is that at least I appreciate my shortcomings and accept that I have a long way to go. To get to where you are going, you have to know where you are first.

    Anyway, really well written and thought provoking post, Mauro.

  2. 47whitebuffalo says :

    Well hello there ‘dave’. Am so glad that your post brought me ‘here’.

    Greetings to Mauro. What do we ‘see’–what engages us and creates bridges/connections–indeed. Your commentary could be applied (as you state) to all venues that involve creativity–and the lack thereof due to academic constrictions and the lack of confidence of students in their own ability to see/catch for themselves via photography–writing–music etc. Your post isn’t really negative–it’s an honest evaluation/confrontation of the state of things. Hence it’s the first step towards change/evolution.
    Merci for your thougths.

    • davecandoit says :

      Hey there 47whitebuffalo. Mauro is definitely worth adding to your blogroll. His posts are always well written and thought provoking. Hope to see you here again. Cheers, Dave

  3. Jos Runarka says :

    …interesting point Mauro. I observed most photographer in my country. If I look those photographs, it looks the same, it was post processed the same way, over saturated, manipulated and have the same look. Why? Because the mainstream like this. Why? Depends on how the mind of the mainstream sees things….

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