Part of the baggage I carry as a “right-brained” individual is the desire to express to you how I feel. Whether you are close family or a complete stranger, I somehow believe that it is important for you to hear me out. Is it self-centered arrogance driving this desire? Yeah, I’ll buy that (and I’m working on it by the way). But since I know myself a bit more these days and accept that I might need this trait in order to have the drive to continue to make photographs, I’m going to give myself a pass for today. Maybe feeding that drive to express my brain’s wanderings is what this blog is about, because photography is certainly not about being more expressive. As earnestly as we photographers sometimes try to push the envelope of self-expression in the medium, the brutal truth is that most other artists do it better.
We photographers work in a measured and deliberate medium – it is what it is. If it’s not expressive enough for you then I suggest writing, painting, or performance art for starters. Expressionistic work flows out of the emotional state of the artist, and part of the joy of experiencing the work is getting into the creator’s head a little bit. It takes genius to take a complex human emotional state like anxiety or joy and make someone else feel it simply by looking at the way one makes marks on a page or canvas.
But to say photography is not expressive is not to say it is without emotion. In fact I think we all understand that photography is one of the more powerful mediums to arouse emotion in an audience, and certainly as art photographers our emotions are sometimes what drive us to do the work in the first place. The mere physical act and mental engagement involved in making photographs can help a photographer personally cope with strong emotions, but “self help” is not what self expression is about.
Expression implies there is an audience one is expressing to, and as far as I know you can’t express yourself to yourself. So will the emotion I was experiencing at the time of making a particular photograph convey to the audience through the medium? Unlikely, certainly not in the way a good abstract expressionist painting contains the actual, physical marks of a painter splashing and dripping paint and raking the canvas with the palette knife does.
Case in point, the first highly emotional photographic work to come to mind is W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay at Minimata, Japan. Working for Life magazine, Smith helped expose a corporation that was dumping industrial waste laced with mercury into the town’s drinking water, poisoning the locals with a rare and terrible condition. His image of a mother cradling her poisoned adult son in her bath is often referred to in photographic history as a modern “Pieta”. This image is charged with strong emotion – it is beauty and sadness in the same picture.
Smith was angry about the crimes at Minimata and chose to face death threats and endure a severe beating by thugs from the company in order to get the work to the world stage. But what does the finished photo essay tell us about Smith? Does it really express him? I think it says to us that he was brave, that he wanted us to question big business , and that he cared for those who couldn’t help themselves, but that’s the low-hanging fruit. Does the photography tell us about his alcoholism, or his hair trigger temper, or hint that he had served with valor in the South Pacific with his camera during World War II? No, none of that conveys in the image, although it is all there in him and thus indirectly affecting the images he chose to make in Minimata.
Like the work at Minimata, the best photographs hopefully generate emotional response from the audience, but there is a definite break between the photographer’s self and the work on the wall. Better to leave the dissemination of that information to the photo historians and psychologists.