Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Your Best Shot and The Detail that Makes It Work

Leo Benedictus of the Guardian is running a series of articles grouped around the idea that a photographer should select his or her "best shot" and discuss it a bit for the benefit of the readers. So far he has interviewed Alec Soth, Bruce Davidson, Loretta Lux, Martine Franck, and a few others. It is frustrating trying to locate these on the Guardian Unlimited's website, as there is no specific category or slot for them. You just have to keyword it in their search field (use quote marks around "best shot" for best results). But the search is well worth the effort.

I was apprized of these articles when I read Jim Johnson's blog today, and I was intrigued by the idea. First of all the photographers do not pick their best shot, they pick their personal favorites, and for quirky reasons. This is particularly useful as our quirks are often more revelatory than our conventional thoughts and choices. Their discussions of the pix are not particularly profound, they are not particularly analytical, but they manage to communicate two important things: first of all, the very personal relationship they have with their imagery, and second the fact that the capture of their imagery and its meaning depend on processes that are intuitional and somewhat beyond their control, which of course is the underlying tenet of this very blog.

Here is Martine Franck on her shot: "I was there for an hour, just sitting quietly in a corner, observing. I never imagined for a second that the bird would perch on the monk's head. That's the wonder of photography - you try and capture the surprises."

She adds, "The picture is somehow a symbol of peace, and of young people getting on with old people. Although I certainly didn't think that at the time -- in the moment, it's just instinctive. Afterwards, maybe, you realise what the photograph means." The meaning of what we shoot is grasped intuitively in the moment of its capture, but it is understood rationally or intellectually only after the event, sometimes long afterwards, which is why I like to pin up pix of mine in my office and ponder them. I often live with pictures for years before I discover their meaning and make a final approval. Something is there beckoning, but I cant always quite wrap my mind around it, so I let it whisper to me until my intellect matures.

Alec Soth's personal choice was interesting to me because he too pointed out an important feature of the meaning of photography. We often prize photos because of the odd associations they elicit, the "spark of accident" that connects us in unexpected ways to the photo. After discussing the qualities he prizes in the picture, and the process whereby he set it up, he makes the following observation:

"There's always one little detail that makes an image work, and for me it's that water in the lower left. It was raining out, and it feels like the Falls are creeping in, tugging at her dress. There's also that thing about rain on your wedding day, which is supposed to be good luck. It rained on my wedding day, and Melissa sort of reminds me of my wife, so I have this funny relationship to the image that way - one that doesn't matter to anyone else."

There is that spark again. Does this association with the water outside hold for the different viewers as well? Do they even notice it? (The image appears in cropped form with the article, and in fact until I clicked and enlarged it, I couldnt see what Alec was talking about.) Does that mean that photos consistently work on two semiotic levels, a personal and a public register? Clearly, the meaning of the photo is largely contained by the bride in her dress -- she dominates the scene, our eyes naturally peg themselves to her. But what causes the eye to wander round the frame to discover the greater meaning? (And let us not forget more transgressive wandering, outside the frame, if extraneous elements intrude and should lead us away -- a technique that I myself favor and which has a long esthetic tradition: witness the structure of an Oriental rug.) This meaning is not extrinsic, nor is it negligible. Alec insists, it is the "detail that makes an image work." I cannot help but think that herein lies the secret of photography and its special contribution to the Arts. I dont think there is a form of esthetic representation more ironic, more paradoxical, more elusive than the photograph. One hundred and sixty-odd years of mechanical reproduction and we have yet to plumb its mystery.