Living With Photographs
Last month at our Soho Photo monthly Portfolio Review meeting I gave a photographer a fairly common piece of advice. I told her that she needs to live with her photographs. She needed to hang her photographs on a wall and look at them daily and contemplate them. Over time the photographs will talk to her and she will start to see what they really are and how they work both within themselves and in relation to other photographs in the same series.
Yesterday I went down to the Julie Saul Gallery to see some photographs by Charlotte Dumas. They were commissioned photographs of burial horses used at Arlington National Cemetary. Charlotte Dumas is known for her portraits of animals. When I first saw these images on the web I thought them beautiful and made a note to go to tot he gallery and view the actual photographs. Upon first seeing the actual prints (they are digital pigment prints) I noticed the abundant noise in the images especially in the shadows, and seeing that these were images made in a dark horse stall using only available light, there was plenty of noise to be seen. At first I was dismissive of the prints thinking them amateurish but then I sat down and looked at them. They were intriguing. The lighting was very intimate and the horses became more than horses. They were spirits, exhausted gods settling down and somehow the noise in the images started to work much the same way grain in chemical photography works to abstract an image and make it otherworldly.
The experience reminded me of my early days as a photo editor at Natural History magazine and the first time I was introduced to Antonin Kratochvil and his work. He was commissioned to work on a story about Mongolian Street Kids. One of the things I loved best about working at this particular magazine and the reason I stayed for 9 years despite the poverty wages was that I got to sit and talk photographs with some really accomplished photographers like Anotnin. I will always remebr the way he greeted me every time I called him on the phone, Hey Baby!” But the first time I saw his photographs I was confused, they were really grainy, out of focus black and white images. What the f–k? Everyone seemed to love them. I didn’t get it.
As a magazine story goes through it’s various iterations and corrections each player in the story (editor, designer, photo editor) has to sign off on the changes. As a new assistant photo editor I did not have a say in the pictures used but I did have to check credits and sign off on each page. So along with seeing these pictures everyday for a month hanging on the storyboard in the hall way , I also saw the pages on my desk at least once a day on my desk and had to sign off each time testifying to my reviewing the story and images yet again. As time went by I began to understand at a deeper level what exactly Antonin was doing. How the grain added to the dark atmosphere of the story, how the tilted horizon and shallow depth of field gave a mood to the story and complimented the words perfectly. These children’s lives were out of balance and so were the photographs. This is when I learned the value of living with your photographs until you get to a deep understanding of what they are really saying and doing. If they are your own photographs you also need to get enough distance so all the emotional baggage associated with taking the photographs are forgotten.
And so back at Julie Saul gallery I begin to appreciate the artist’s use of grain (noise) and slight movement in the photographs. They start to become more like paintings depicting the horses as archetypal heroic workers ready for well deserved rest and repose.