By way of introduction to my Photography and Public History course this semester at Carleton, our Professor, Jim Opp, had us pick a favourite quotation from a mass of such compiled at the back of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. I found myself drawn to two very different, and seemingly unrelated, quotations. But both got at what I feel to be the “essence” of photography (if I may be contrite). Let’s just see if we can’t figure out how to reconcile the two, why don’t we?
The first quotation I chose was from Frederick Sommer, a prolific early-twentieth-century (my favourite!) photographer. He is quoted as saying:
Life itself is not the reality. We are the ones who put life into stones and pebbles.
Which, in keeping with the trend of what I’ve been learning all about this year (nothing exists! Meaning is meaningless! The only thing that exists is us, and we make meaning, and maybe then even that doesn’t happen!) seemed, at first glace, like a great way to tie this photography course into the rest of my work. But I’m not entirely sure that’s what this quotation is getting at. Sure, maybe photographs don’t, won’t ever, never did capture “reality,” but it’s not like we agree on what that is anyway. What photographs do capture is the eye of the photographer. The eye of the beholder. And that’s where beauty is?
According to Sommer, that, at least, is where life is. A stone, a pebble, of course is not full of life. The stone doesn’t know it’s beautiful, the pebble doesn’t pose for the photographer. But we still get something from it. However, I’m not entirely convinced that what we see in and amongst the stones and pebbles is the inherent beauty of the objects themselves. I think we see our own memories of that hike, the keen eye of a friend whose photographic skills we wish to commend, or the platonic ideal of man conquering unspoilt nature (can you tell I’m from Canada?). So I guess I’m going to have to depart from our dear friend Frederick and modify his words to suit my own tastes – we don’t put life into stones and pebbles, rather that we see the lives of others in an object’s likeness on film. (But that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so well.)
So on the one hand, I’ve got this side of how I see photograph. That the photograph itself barely matters, it’s whose behind the camera that interests me most, that affects me most. But on the other hand, the second quotation that I pulled from Sontag’s compilation (coming from a 1843 letter from Elizabeth Barrett to Mary Russell Mitford) veers in an opposite direction – one where the likeness on film does indeed hold the most meaning for the viewer:
I long to have such a memorial of every being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases – but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing . . . the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever! It is the very sanctification of portraits I think – and it is not at all monstrous in me to say, what my brothers cry out against so vehemently, that I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist’s work ever produced.
If the earlier quotation gets at the cold, hard, academic side of me, this one tugs at the warm, soft, sentimental side of my being. How many times do I scroll through my old travel photos from years abroad and elsewhere? (Lots of times.) How often do I go creep a friend I haven’t seen in a long while? (Very often.) How misty do I get over my parents’ albums of me and my siblings in our youth, or better yet my grandparents during the war or as children themselves? (Pretty misty). Obviously it’s not just the person that’s behind the photograph that gets to me, it’s the person in the photograph too.
I guess I’m the meaning-maker of the photograph, after all. As Elizabeth Barrett put it, it’s the “association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing.” If I can seize at that association, then I get the photograph, I can be moved by the photograph. And of course, it doesn’t just have to be a photograph taken by someone I know or a photograph taken of someone I know. It’s easier than ever to consume consume consume images these days (who doesn’t follow a tumblr or two or twelve?). Some of them grab you, some of them don’t. As long as it’s got life, as long as it’s got a shadow, then it’s a compelling photograph, a compelling document. What this means for this course, I’ve yet to nail down. But hey, since I’m the meaning-maker I can decide that the meaning, for this maker, isn’t fixed, not just yet.