I grew up in a small village in the North East of England. My parents didn’t drive a car and therefore, if you wanted to go anywhere you had to take the bus. It often seemed like it took forever for the bus to come and when it did it wasn’t uncommon for two or more buses going to the same place to arrive at the same time. I use that experience as analogy for questions that come up during life that seem to take forever to answer. And then, totally out of the blue, several answers come at the same time. I had this happen to me recently.
I spend a lot of time looking at photographs, trying to figure out what it is that attracts me so much to some and not so much to others. I know it’s less the subject than the connection and emotional response, but I struggle to comprehend and verbalize the response and feelings I have for certain images. I want to understand because I want to consider the answers in my own work. After agonizing over this for quite some time, one of the answers came to me from three different sources almost all at the same time. I know this is not the only answer and therefore, my quest is far from over, but for me, this is a major step forward. That particular answer is relationships.
I recently took a class run by Baltimore based photographer, Leo Lubow (http://lubowphotography.com) called Finding Your Vision in Black and White: What the Masters can Teach us. Leo demonstrated a method to deconstruct photographs into fields and talked about how great photographers use tonal differences to create relationships between the fields to create depth and lift the simple out of the complex. While I was thinking this over, I stumbled across an article by Paul Caponigro, in which he said:
“A tone in a print has an impact, somewhat in the way the key of C in music has a particular quality and character. Each tone to me is like a sound and together they harmonize as in music. When a deep black appears next to a specific grey, I’m affected by the relationship….. I prefer not to think of tones as separate divisions of densities on a negative but to feel the relationships between them.”
Leo Lubow’s teaching and Paul Caponigro’s thoughts are powerful and started me thinking about how tonal relationships can be used to add mood and atmosphere to an image. And then I read the following in Robert Adam’s new book Art Can Help.
“It is the responsibility of artists to pay attention to the world, pleasant or otherwise, and to help us live respectfully in it. Artists do this by keeping their curiosity and moral sense alive, and by sharing with us their gift for metaphor. Often, this means finding similarities between observable fact and inner experience…. The subject of a painting or photograph does not by itself make it art…..”
I don’t think replacing the word “similarities” with “relationships” would change what Adams is suggesting. For me, Adams closes the loop by suggesting that beyond the technical, great photographs also have relationships between the subject and the photographers own experience, i.e. images we create are manifestations of our inner self and images we look at invoke feelings based on our experiences. I think this combination of the technical and our thoughts, feelings, experiences and imagination makes for a truly powerful relationship and therefore, potentially a great photograph.