The written word fills up half of my creative and working life, but when it comes to my visual work I tend to leave words aside. I rarely put titles, other than the very important time data, and rarely add introductory comments, but this is not just “letting the pictures speak for themselves”. The reasons are more complex and overlap with the problems of subject, genre and coding.
A title will point the viewer in a given direction if the writer and reader share the same linguistic and cultural background – and that’s certainly not always the case. The emotional reaction to words and images may be similar but they cannot really be felt ‘as one’ since the brain decodes each in a different way. Written words have an extra life attached – they are graphic, or they are code. When looking at the work of others online, I scroll to hide the title if I can and may only check it later to help log the image or the photographer.
Images inspire, generate a sense of awe, and sometimes create a feeling of well-being through an appreciation of what is, or what is not, beautiful to us. Each person brings their own background and make-up to every new experience and will interpret anything new through the filters and blinkers of memory. This enables each viewer to see what they choose in an image, to relate to it in their own way.
If I had to play to a market it would be different, perhaps, but I have little market sensitivity. Possibly having few roots in any one country dictates a greater awareness of cultural similarities than of differences and this transfers to my perspective on image making. We can never place ourselves in the shoes of other makers but we can sense, I think, an equivalence between depictions of a bison hunt scratched onto a cave wall and the photojournalist’s record of an atrocity. Mankind’s history is a fairly short story and the visual associations are broad.
So what is a genre? The wider definition is a ‘type’ or area of subject matter: portrait, landscape, still life, etc. How useful is that? Whatever elements we find satisfying or stimulating in the structure of an image can be found almost anywhere – the balance or harmonies we are attracted to are as important to the landscape photographer as they are to the nude artist. And aside from a specialised interest in or aversion to any one subject or style, the formal qualities can be appreciated across the range.
I think we are lucky in this period that we can look back over a century of abstraction in the arts as this can help us see that even the most representational images can be viewed or understood in purely abstract terms. Squeeze your eyes half shut when looking at a crisp nude or landscape and you see blurs of line, colour or tone as precisely imprecise as a shot by Jason Lupi or Jon Brown. The formal arrangements, composition and tone, etc, override the genre.
For my purposes, in a successful image the qualities of composition are more important than subject matter: subject focus and background, line and tone. The subject may be the hook that draws me in, but to make something of that I must work to make it fit the square or rectangle. There are many, many ways to divide up the canvas, but the limits of the canvas edge are always there. Everything within is imaginary, but a strong image should spill outwards to evoke a response that is real.
Generally speaking, my approach towards the subject has always been the same. With people this involves setting up a dialogue, encouraging them to become an icon in their own movie, and then finding the right compositional framing that will make the best possible use of the background and the light. At the moment of firing the shutter I am usually looking beyond them, as if they were a cardboard cutout in the landscape. (Anyone who has seen the black bulls of Xerez while travelling the roads of Spain might recognise this idea.) This is not purist ‘street’ photography, and in the shots below the subjects have always had the opportunity to play to the lens.
In trying to define what I do, what I look for and how I treat it, I have sometimes attempted to seek out a grand all-encompassing title. For the past ten years it has been “Visual Records” (the heading of my websites) as this seems to pigeonhole my work in a neat enough way. Recently though, a Flickr friend left a comment referring to the narrative within each image. A more specialised meaning of genre relates to narrative, originally the kind found in domestic or everyday scenes. I use this more broadly to describe images that relate rather than depict.
If I should bring out a book entitled “Narrative Counterpoint” I would include these shots. I hope they all hit you in the same spot.
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