As part of my application to the MFA program at Columbia University I wrote about how I wanted to study the question of what makes a photograph a photograph. Photographs have always been compared to “memories”; why? Paintings, music, drawings have never been compared to memories. What is a memory? The first thing that makes itself felt when I try to answer this question is that memories are marked by a sense of incompleteness. Things are missing but that omission makes the memory all the more precious. Photography is similar. It is the subtraction that makes the image powerful.
I was thinking of this while I read an article by the photographer Paul Graham, The Unreasonable Apple. If you have not read it (as I, since I just read it minutes ago) and you are in anyway interested in photography go read it now. If you are a student in an MFA program drop everything and go read it now. I just want to make explicit something implied in the article. When he talks about the art world “getting” artist such as Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall, he is talking about photographers who work in an additive manner; much the same way painters do. Painters start with a blank white canvas and add marks and color to create. Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewsdon do essentially the same thing. They create a scene using real people and props and then take a photo of it. The creative act is not in the photograph. The creative act happens before the shutter is snapped. It is like taking a picture of a painting or a drawing. The creative act is seen second hand. But curators and art world cognoscenti can understand this type of image making more readily than they get the creativity behind the work of an artist like Robert Frank.
As Graham puts it:
How do we articulate this uniquely photographic creative act, and express what it amounts to in terms such that the art world, highly attuned to synthetic creation -the making of something by the artist- can appreciate serious photography that engages with the world as it is?
I think my idea of photography as a subtractive medium might help. What photographers such as Robert Frank and Paul Graham himself do is that they face the whole, entire world and engage with it and come to some sort of understanding of it. The artistry is in taking away all the distractive bits of the world that get in the way of communicating that understanding. Sometimes this is done so well that the message comes through as a feeling or an emotion. The art, the message becomes visceral, something beyond words. After all, don’t words usually get in the way of a perfect understanding?