Desperately seeking a photographic aesthetic

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Like multitudes of others I love photography – doing it and appreciating it.

I have for a long time looked at photographs by great photographers to inspire me into taking better photographs but I'm also looking for a 'photographer's aesthetic'.

By 'an aesthetic' I mean a model that includes the principles and values and perhaps 'tools' that help me to photograph more ably but which also helps in developing capability in reading and evaluating photographs.  

For me it includes truth and goodness as well as beauty.

This short article is the first step towards such a 'photographer's aesthetic'.

It will be successful if it helps me;

a) in the photographs I take
b) the 'reading' of my own and other people's photographs
c) the evaluation of the relative worth of particular photographs

For me it needs to fit in with my model of what it is to be human – which I concluded was 'to care', 'to create' and to be critical' – all in our 'community' web of relationships.

The field is something of a minefield, ranging from very challenging important writing to gobbledygook cum psycho-babble. There is a simple possible aesthetic in a well-known book by John Szarkowski;

The book, of an exhibition, presents 5 concerns in photography. Szarkowski structures his book on

The Thing Itself – this I take to be the object 'out there', at least the thing that stimulated the photographer's attention

The Detail – which part of the object is emphasized

The Frame – what does and doesn't go inside one of the four sides of the frame

Time – not just the duration of the shot but whether the photograph re-presents the passing of time as in a blurring of motion.

The Vantage Point – which I take to be largely the same as PoV – point of View – high angle shot etc.

So with this 5-dimensional model we can read and appreciate any photograph. For example we can ask how interestingly/engagingly/unusually does any photograph use one or more or all of those five dimensions?

Much though I like the book and the essay the five dimensions seem to me to be too limited for my satisfaction.

One suspects that this and similar models come about to answer questions such as; "What is the specific nature of photography?" as well as questions such as "How do we read a photograph?" Perhaps also there is the defensive and doubt-ridden, "But photography is an art – isn't it?"

"If I were going there I wouldn't start from here," said the proverbial yokel. In the case of photography the place not to start from is the technology, or even the technique.

Most of the arts media are about mark-making – even dance is a moving, temporary, mark made in a particular space and context.  The marks as paintings, or photographs, or any other medium, have in the hands of an artist, the ability to create experience, including deep experience – but more like a haiku than a novel.

Photography as a fine art then is simply another way to make marks – marks that are able, more or less, to provide an experience that engages us in one or more of the deeper concerns of life, without excluding the more prosaic and domestic concerns.

The essence of photographic artistry is in the user of the camera, be it a pin-hole camera or a Leica M9. The art is in the artist and her/his response to the world. The art is in engagement in the deeper concerns of being human, in the world with others.

Where does that leave us with Szarkowski's 5-dimension model? The five dimensions are really about the language of the photographic process in the same way that close-up, two-shots, establishing shots etc are all part of the language of film. They help us describe aspects of technique.

We need more to centre the process in being human as opposed to writing and reading technique. The only way for that to work is to recognize and have some familiarity with one or more discourses. The great educational writer Michael Oakeshott I recall said that all true education is a conversation – a conversation that started eons ago.

Why kind of conversation or discourse can we pull together that has a practical benefit for those who like making photographic images as well as reading such images?

We will have to raid the philosophies of the last half-century, without getting trapped in their mazes. We also have to shift from technique to the movement of the spirit, the photographer's and the 'reader's' with the embodied text, the photograph, as the agent for the spirit moves to take place.

Above all we will have to shift from 'outer' concerns' to 'inner' concerns.

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1st draft of first part of this article at 3rd November 2011

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