Friday, February 1, 2008


Photographer Garry Winogrand once observed that when you put a frame around some facts you altered those facts.
Interesting thought. Winogrand was alluding to his belief that the photographic process did not record with 100% fidelity the reality it was confronted with.

The question is, if this is true, then how or why does it happen?
The human eye is an extremely complex instrument capable of recording and transmitting a great deal of information to the brain. Constantly scanning the visual information put before it, the eye generally prevents the brain from contemplating any one aspect of a given "something" for more than a brief portion of a second. Generally the information put before the eye is also in some state of motion, thereby creating even more chaos for the brain to record
and interpret. Chaos is generally what photography, by it's very nature, is designed to deal with best. Still photographs stop time, freeze moments, and in the process give order to in-process visual situations. In the process of stopping time the photograph is capable of removing the moment preserved from the flow or context it was recorded from. Most situations generally have a kind of narrative flow built into them...a beginning, middle, and end. Still photography removes that context, freezing the elements within the photographic frame in a unique kind of visual "now" that has no beginning or end.

Removing a moment from the context of it's flow of events is only one part of the photographic process. Along with stopping time, the camera also isolates and records only portions of that flow of time through selective framing by the photographer, further changing the image's relationship to the "reality" it is supposed to record. Both of these actions, stopping and framing a slice of time are the result of some form of cognitive effort on the part of the photographer, either conscious or intuitive.
Lastly, photography is a two-dimensional process that is tasked to somehow transform three dimensions into two. This transformation can lead to a different narrative than the one intended, and here lies the center of photography`s unique power.

Within this three part circle of visual confusion created by the act of photographing a "reality" is the WHY of the operation. Making a photographic record of something and in the process transforming that reality is generally the result of some form of conscious decision making on the part of the person operating the camera. Photographs that are made out in the "real world", shot while something is in the process of happening is generally referred to as Street or Documentary Photography. This is a process that depends on the thin slicing of time from some form of visual narrative that occures in the photographers presence. For many such photographers their response to these evolving visual narratives depend on a unique level of photographic ability that derives more from that unconscious part of the mind referred to as intuition.
The creative process, act of recognition, and intuition is a little understood part of the human condition. More attention has been given to getting ones self into a state of mind that encourages that part of the creative self than trying to explain the condition itself.
Photographer/Guru Minor White spent a considerable part of his creative life trying to come to grips with this unconscious self. White investigated zen meditation and different forms of metaphysics to try and explain to his students and colleagues what he FELT he knew. He attempted to adopt Alfred Steigliz's theory of Equivilents....a way of trying to explain how and why photographs can mean things other than the thing depicted. He also explored the art of the Zen archer and how the rigorous training involved in that sport related to photography and art. Whites problem, like others who have attempted to put into words the thinking behind visual creativity is that he was generally trying to explain an intuitive creative act and creation to people who had not yet experienced that act for themselves. He was attempting to explain the sound of a tree falling to folks who had not yet entered the forest.
French photo journalist Robert Doisneau once observed that "The photographer must be a blotter, allow himself to be permeated by the poetic moment".
Indeed. Perhaps like the Zen archer becoming the target itself in order to hit it with the arrow.
Photographer Sylvia Plachy explained to an interviewer that she often made her more interesting photographs while in a sort of trance...meaning she had no conscious visual agenda at the time of the shoot, rather allowing herself to follow whatever was happening instinctively (intuitively?), making pictures that she responded to naturally rather than following a pre-set visual narrative.
Writer/teacher Dorthea Brande wrote some 60 years ago in her book, ON BECOMING
A WRITER, that prior to writing one must quiet down one's self into a kind of calmness in order to set up the mind to allow the creative self to surface. Doisneau, Plachy and Brande would appear to be talking about the same tactic of self-approach to the creative act.

Whether used as a creative tactic or a form of Zen-like self awareness, understanding the role of intuition in the photographic process goes hand-in-hand with also understanding how the technical characteristics of the camera influences the unique way the camera records reality.
Like Winogrand said. It's all about seeing how things look photographed!

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