I’m starting something very new, and quite challenging. My good friend Eileen suggested to me that we do a collaborative project, something I’ve had thoughts about doing for quite a while. We wanted something very thought-provoking and it’s taken us a little while to come up with a plan, but here’s where we are right now.
We’ve been inspired by the idea of Socratic dialogue. Socrates taught his students not by feeding them information or telling them what they should think, but by asking questions of them. By asking the right questions and getting them to examine their own replies, he helped them clarify the issues and work out why they thought what they thought, quite often leading them to change their minds of their own accord. Socratic questions don’t have any right or wrong answers, and often there are no absolute answers at all – the important thing is the questioning process and the deeper understanding it leads to. This is what we’re aiming to achieve with our new project, but with images being as important as words (or maybe more so).
We’re going to choose a piece of text – or it could even be a photograph, an audio recording, or a video – and exchange images that show some kind of response to it, along with some explanation and thoughts as well. We’ll probably keep going with the text until we feel we’ve exhausted the possibilities and then change it for something else. We’re hoping that it will give us – and perhaps anyone who’s reading our blogs – some food for thought. We’re also hoping that other people might like to join in the discussion, and perhaps even leave links in the comments to their own photographic responses to the text.
And we’re not starting easy – oh, no! We’ve chosen our text and this is it:
Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Before we came up with this text – well, it was actually Eileen who came up with it – we’d already exchanged a set of images each. She’s now emailed me her interpretation of our pictures, with reference to the quote above. First of all, here are Eileen’s photos:
And you can see the ones I sent to her at the top of the post. I was feeling very mentally and creatively blank at the time, and wasn’t sure why I’d picked these ones out specially – I was just drawn to the colour and light in them.
Here’s what Eileen had to say:
My pictures are very much about space and perhaps absence – large pictures with limited information across most of the picture plane. Yours in contrast are small images, and have a slight feeling of enclosure. When reflecting on them, it seemed to me that where my images are in part about absence, yours are very much about presence. The light that falls across the scene feels to me like a very definite presence, almost physically palpable. It’s a warm, comforting presence and the more I look at them the more I imagine it as personified. Light as God, or the ultimate parent, or some form of spirit or benign being. It was reflecting on that presence, and the role these pictures might play in your life, that drew me back again and again to the quote above. I think I am making expansive and peaceful images at least in part because my life feels so busy and unpeaceful just now. Who or what is this presence that is calling to you in these images?
Does making these pictures drive them out of our minds, not to help us avoid them, but to give them some form of incorporation, to make them more real, to comfort us and to seek to share that with others? To what extent are they about things you can’t see, and how necessary are words to deepen understanding and explore more complex points?
Whew……some big questions there. I’ll do my best to respond to at least some of them – as this is an ongoing kind of thing, I’m not even going to try and answer everything at once.
First of all, these two images are very typical of my work. Sometimes I make images that are about emptiness and absence and involve a lot of space, but it’s more like me to produce smaller, intimate pictures like these ones. Something comes over me when I see beautiful light or amazing colours, and it’s something that lifts me out of myself and my petty concerns and makes me forget about myself for a while. In that sense there’s a transcendent element that kicks in when I shoot these things – it’s no longer me capturing the pictures, but the pictures capturing me, and that’s when I feel I do my best work.
As for a kind of presence, I don’t believe in any kind of orthodox god – if I were pushed to say what I believe in, it would be that there’s something like a benevolent but impersonal positive force or energy that we can draw on and tap into. Some people might call that ‘god’ but I don’t like the connotations that hang around the word. However, if I had to give this thing a physical presence, that presence would be something that trailed clouds of light and colour – very like what I’ve attempted to show in these images, in fact. It’s coincidental that these pictures were taken in a cathedral, but perhaps the space lent itself to the expression of this kind of thing. My beliefs are very personal to me, and not something I want to go into here, but it’s interesting to me that Eileen has seen something in my images that expresses them rather well.
But let’s go back to the text again. – why the need to ‘drive them out of [my] mind’ and give them tangible form? I think this is a question that’s relevant to all photography – why do we need to give the things we see a physical form? Why is not enough to simply experience them? I don’t think I have any answers right now, but the question is interesting. Garry Winogrand once said that he took photos to see what things looked like when they were photographed, and I think there’s something in that that resonates with me. But what is it that makes that an interesting thing to do? And isn’t there more to it than that?
‘The necessary condition for an image is sight’, quotes Barthes. But there are quite a number of blind photographers out there who get something from creating images that they can’t see. Some of them do have some residual sight, others are completely blind but did see at one time, so they’re ‘seeing’ the image in their minds, but it still puzzles me why someone would get anything out of doing this. Turning to a different sense, there’s also the example of Beethoven, who continued to compose music he’d never hear except in his own mind. It seems, then, that we have some kind of need to ‘drive them [our images] out of our minds’ and put them into tangible form, but it’s not clear why. Is it the process that’s important rather than the result, and why is this process important even when you can’t see what you’re taking?
These photographers will never be able to see prints or screenshots of what they’ve taken, so the end result is presumably not the driving force. Talking to another friend of mine a few weeks ago, we were pondering the problem of what you actually do with your photos or artwork once you’ve created them. If you aren’t going to sell or display them, why produce them? I could argue that it’s the process that’s the important thing, but would I still take pictures if I knew no-one but me would ever see them? I think not, so it can’t just be about the process for me. I think I feel a need to communicate what I’m seeing, perhaps to try and point out something that I’ve noticed but that you might not have. Or if you did, you might have seen it in a different way. It works as both expression and communication, and if someone resonates with something I do, then some small connection is created between us and that’s a very satisfying thing.
There’s a lot more to say, and in true Socratic style I’ve asked far more questions than I can ever hope to answer, but there’s an alarmingly high word count appearing at the bottom of my screen. I’m going to leave it here for now, except to return briefly to Eileen’s pictures. For me, they’re all about space to breathe. When I look at them I feel as if I can take a big deep breath and let go of my problems – which is exactly what I’m going to do now.