This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine
For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.
For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.
Poetry, it could be said, is the highest form of art, one to which all other forms aspire. Perhaps this is because of the way our human minds have developed in the shade of language and how words and their sounds, their ebb and flow can cut to the centre of the human condition. Whilst often hard to glean and difficult to read poems are written with great care with each syllable and word balanced so the whole makes a new kind of sense. Purpose is not always evident but it is always present in poetry. It could be argued that this purpose, this commitment to a direction is not present in much of the photography we can readily access today.
The best photography can occasionally achieve the elusive and untouchable quality of great poetry. But what quality do we ascribe to the work which is exhibited and shared which never achieves that status? Dross? Pap? Experiment? There is an unaccounted cost to observers of these images without purpose. Vital energy and spirit are expended in the engagement and then realisation that much of this work, whilst superficially interesting, leads us only into cul-de-sacs of estrangement and tedium.
For the purposes of this column documentary photography and other prosaic forms of photography have to be put to one side. Photographers like Rinko Kawachi, Josef Sudek, Man Ray, Paul Kooiker, Mathew Pillsbury and Saul Leiter to name a few ‘photo-poets’ have made their names by showing us, not what matters in the external world, but rather by manifesting the internal discourse of the human spirit. These photographers are poetic artists who use photography as their medium.
Arguably the work by these photographers is often marked by its seeming lack of purpose. Their pictures just ‘are’ and when we see them in a book, online or in a gallery we are invited to take them for what they are just because they are there for us to see. The power of these works comes, in part, from their uselessness as much as it does from their aesthetic form. But in the background there is always a purpose to their work – not, perhaps, the kind that builds skyscrapers or empires but a deep, quiet and subconscious sense of purpose.
Purpose has no relationship with usefulness. And uselessness is not at all the same as pointlessness! Purpose is often lost in the mistaken belief that a veneer of something other-worldly or indecipherable is all that is required to give validity to an image. How many times do you inwardly sigh as you scan the images posted online or in some magazines, books or exhibitions and realise that the only quality you can detect in these photographs is the pointlessness they appear to revel in? The amount of work shown that can ONLY have relevance to the progenitor is staggering. We read blurbs that firmly place the work in a historical context, that make an observer feel dumb for not feeling anything. Pointlessness is endemic in a medium made easy to create and disseminate by technology. But is it possible that in many cases even those same creators of this work are themselves baffled and unconvinced by it too?
There is, however, a cure for the ennui here described. If a point is missing it must be found. The jumping off point for a series or a single image should be a considered point; nailed down, staked out and pinned up, considered, considered again from the point of view of experience and then kicked around to the point of destruction. Placing intellect, experience and instinct at the centre of the creative drive pulls the creative dynamic into shape leading to better, clearer thinking and imagery with greater complexity, intelligence and deeper intellectual values.
There is a corollary to this encomium; purposeful work requires bravery on the part of the photographer. If work has a purpose then it risks failing to address or even establish the point it is trying to make. In other words by aiming to achieve something work may fail simply because it aims to have a purpose. But what is the alternative?
So much work is allowed into the public domain which has no point that even the artist that created it can determine. This speaks to a post modern, deconstructed view of the art world according to the mantra that the experience of art and any meaning derived from it is firmly in the domain of the beholder. This requires nothing of the artist and places all the responsibility for deriving value or meaning on the part of the observer.
Artworks which seek only to preach or are dogmatic or didactic are often boring and grandiose but the alternative, work which has no meaning to which an artist will pin his or her intellect and reputation is a waste of time because it can never teach us anything. A return to intellect and bravery, a sense of purpose, a chance of failure are what makes art exciting. Where these qualities are absent so is art and so is the poetic dance off light which, when when shone in the right direction, can illuminate all our lives.
London May 31st 2016