Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Introduction: On Accidents and Essays
A while back I started a thread on Lightstalkers about Walter Benjamin's famous phrase, the "spark of accident." It seems an apt phrase to describe the kind of photography that I do, and so I decided to use it as the title of this photo blog. I am new to blogging, but I got interested in this medium when I started a blog of my own in Spanish, Trozos de un Viralata, in order to help me master that rather unSaxonlike language. While that blog touches on photography from time to time, it doesnt focus on it, and after reading impressive photoblogs such as those written by Alec Soth, Martin Fuchs, Sion Touhig and Joerg Colberg, I decided that I should enter the fray with a photoblog of my own. I have shot my mouth off enough on Lightstalkers, so I guess I might just spare those patient people a while and collect my thoughts here instead. To that end, I am going to begin by dredging up some of the old LS posts and refashion them for publication here.
Blogging in my view is essentially a postmodern form of the Montaignesque essay. That great philosopher used the essay form to test ("essay") experience, to interrogate it from a variety of perspectives that were not necessarily consistent. In fact, contradiction and inconclusiveness lay at the heart of his enterprise: "I do not portray being, I portray passing. . . . If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial." While most philosophers are compelled to systematize and rationalize life, Montaigne, who lived during a time of great social and religious conflict, eschewed system and favored paradox and irony over logic and sequential order. Blogging by its very nature -- an ad hoc diary of stray musings and errant thoughts motivated by nothing more than the author's fancy -- seems the perfect medium to carry on in his vein.
I think of photos as visual essays of a sort. Saatchi recently invited me to be part of their online gallery, which I readily accepted, particularly as it gave me the opportunity to consider what it is I do and how it might fit into the context of the Art World. The definition I gave of my photographs seems to be in line with Montaigne's definition of his writing: "A good photograph tells many stories, but only if the photographer opens him or herself up to the object world. I am not interested in creating something original, but in discovering things that others see but do not heed. In that sense, I suppose my photographs are more like questions than answers." Course, one could argue that this is nothing more than the classic stance of the street photographer, and I would agree. Alex Webb defined it best in the prologue to his book on Haiti, Under A Grudging Sun: "I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner." That search for the secret heart of the known is quintessentially Romantic in tradition, not unlike what Wordsworth called "spots in time." While a postmodern searcher might balk at defining the goal of his search in these terms, the "unexpected" remains a legitimate goal for the street photographer, and that accident which provides the photo with its power and seduction is nothing more than the stumbling block that reality conspires to toss in the path of the wanderer, by means of which one's expectations or assumptions are shaken to the core.
Elliot Erwitt said in a recent interview conducted for a multimedia piece, "I always include Luck in the budget." That consummate photographer of comical accidents ought to know. Luck, serendipity, accident, contingency -- that little bit of reality that the photographer can never control -- is the animating force behind a great photograph, the enlivening spirit, the magic of the moment. When I set out to photograph, I like nothing better than to carry one small light camera and then to give myself over to the experience of discovering whatever might occur during the span of time that is curtailed only by the fatigue to which my legs eventually succumb. But one never knows whether that adventure will yield a surprise or not. For that reason, I consider any assignment a somewhat hazardous duty in every sense of the word, because while I am being hired to bring back the goods, I dont really know ahead of time what goods I might procure, if any. Like any other seasoned shooter, I try to maximize my endeavor by preparing properly for the assignment, researching the situation, lining up reliable contacts, and setting up a reasonable itinerary. But the essential irony governing my occupation is that my best work is inevitably the result of losing myself in a place and surrendering control. By giving myself over to the moment, instead of dictating its form and sequence, I am more likely to succeed in bringing back something that really is good, while it may or may not serve as goods.
The Argentinian writer, Adolfo Bioys Casares, once wrote, " . . . no creo en magos, con o sin bonete, pero sí en la magia del mundo" (I dont believe in magicians, with or without a magic hat, but I do believe in the magic of the world). That defines my attitude as well. I dont necessarily believe in the wizards who dazzle us with their visual prestidigitation, but I do confide in the magic that their practice serves to delineate or throw into relief. It is probably impossible to define what makes a good image or where the images come from, but a good photographer learns to rely on the fact that they will come, albeit of their own accord.
Posted by Jon Anderson at 2:51 PM