WORDS & PICTURES

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I came across a YouTube video of Stephen Shore the photographer commenting about photography and his approach to it. In one scene about his experience teaching, Shore comments that photography is a solitary occupation that involves visual thinking, but teaching is a verbal activity that requires words that express those visual ideas. I had a parallel experience for a different reason than Shore’s, interviewing photographers first as a staff editor at Petersen’s PhotoGraphic magazine and then later on for a time as editor of PhotoPro magazine. I found many photographers are like Shore described, used to the solitary, purely visual experience of making photographs, and often not prepared or comfortable verbalizing what they did with a camera or why.

That the verbal and visual worlds are somewhat separate and seldom brought together is evident in how little serious writing has been published about photography by philosophers and scholars who live mostly in a n environment of words, although when photography was new at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries many essays about photography were written and published by enthusiasts, advocates and detractors alike. Among philosophers Roland Barthes book Camera Lucida and Bill Jay’s Negative/Positive are exceptions as well as articles and essays published by The Friends Of Photography featuring Jay and Beaumont Newhall amongst others can be found. In modern culture photography does not stand alone, it is very much a part of what we now call media, and in this context the most insightful commentary about the photograph is in Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media published in 1964 found on page 188. I think most photographers won’t get beyond the title of chapter: 20 The Photograph: The Brothel-without-Walls. But I assure it is an allusion without pejorative connotations. Photographers are part anthropologist, somewhat participant observers of life and the world, voyeurs of a curious kind of usually innocent purpose.

If I may quote parts of one paragraph from Marshall McLuhan, “A century ago the British craze for the monocle gave to the wearer the power of the camera to fix people in a superior stare, as if they were objects. .... Both monocle and camera tend to turn people into things, and the photograph extends and multiplies the human image to the proportions of mass-produced merchandise. The movie stars and matinee idols are put in the public domain by photography. They become dreams that money can buy. They can be bought and hugged and thumbed more easily than public prostitutes. Mass produced merchandise has always made some people uneasy in its prostitute aspect. Jean Genet’s The Balcony is a play on this theme of society as a brothel environed by violence and horror. The avid desire of mankind to prostitute itself stands up against the chaos of revolution. The brothel remains firm and permanent amidst the most furious changes. In a word, photography has inspired Genet with the theme of the world since photography as a Brothel-without-Walls.”

Marshall McLuhan writing in the early 60’s, long before the word paparazzi was a part of our cultural lexicon, and before Britney Spears’ parents were probably born, described exactly how the era of celebrity would develop. It is good to know and understand how the media’s use of photography has evolved. But to what extent does the media even as pervasive as it is today affect photography as a folk art, the way it is practiced by amateur enthusiasts? I think some of it rubs off and colors the experience especially how the camera’s use affects others, and objectifies the person by putting them on the pages of a family album to be scrutinized out of the context of time. How many people are embarrassed by their drivers license photo? Does the merchandizing of Paris Hilton and every celebrity make most of us uneasy and give rise to second thoughts about photography when we see riotous crowds of paparazzi on TV news?

A generation ago Duane Michaels scribbled notes on Polaroid snapshots and it was elevated to fine art, and today we have FaceBook. But little real understanding or insight seems to be recognized about the relationship between words and photographs, it’s like a dysfunctional marriage, occasional shouting and little mutual understanding. That words and pictures do go together is a fact, but it is not something even a writer/photographers like myself fully appreciate. And after writing captions for photos to be published for almost 40 years, my mind still balks at the task, and goes numb until I prod myself that it has to get done no matter how uncomfortable it is.

If you have a comment, they are welcome, so please post it. If you have a question you want me to answer please address an e-mail to David B. Brooks at: goofotografx@gmail.com

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