Experience and Equivalents of Self

Minor White told us there are three modes of expressive photography:

  • The objective,
  • The subjective, and
  • The equivalent.

White suggested that when a photographer sees the subject of a photograph “with regard for either its individuality or its essence,” he or she is expressing it objectively. When, on the other hand, the photographic subject causes a mental or emotional reaction, the photographer is expressing it subjectively.  For many, this covers all cases. However, White argued a further step – an “equivalence” is a situation that goes beyond the subjective, even reverses it. No longer is the photographer reacting to something from the outside, but rather projecting what is inside – what has already been established by experience – back out onto the world as if the world were reacting to the observer.  White further suggested that each mode is experienced through transformation, i.e. from objective to subjective to equivalence. He argued that the transformation between “modes” occurs simultaneously with the development of our life experience and our ability to be in touch with those experiences residing deep within our self. Ego’s attempts to keep us within our “safety zone” is a major barrier to such transformation.  Since making an equivalence rather than merely a subjective photograph requires that artists know themselves to such a degree that they dare to shape the world to their own image, we are required to explore regions of our life experience that our ego has expended significant amounts of time and energy suppressing and containing.

Virginia Woolf also provided a useful observation on such life experience:

“The compensation of growing old . . . was simply this: that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one had gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavor to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.”

However, life experience is not to be confused with technical experience.  As we gain experience in our technique, we become virtuous in our skill.  Some may see virtuosity as the ultimate achievement: once it is attained, they level off and they do not see the potential of another kind of development.  Satisfied with their virtuosity they begin repeating themselves because they are proud and satisfied. David Travis considers this thought In his book At The Edge of Light and, in the context of Virginia Wolf’s statement he says  “to be able to take hold of experience, turn it slowly in the light, and then step beyond is a stage few photographers ever reach.”

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