an epiphany

My epiphany:

This blog is not really the learned, well researched blog I am supposed to write for my MFA, but it is a blog to document an insight, a struggle and then a changed moment. It is a blog that is part of this MFA journey. Yes I could have simply written it and left it on my computer, but that puts out a false image of no struggle during this journey, and I dislike those.

So here goes....... After a few weeks of ‘swimming in muck’ (as I call it when I cannot see the wood for the tree’s anymore and have very little inspiration to fire the creative synapses), and trying to plod through it, as this normally creates a break through, I finally got that moment: I had been reading a book I was recommended by Judy Millar, it was Susan Sontag On Photography.

It was a book she felt I needed to read if I continued on with photography as my main process. Finding it in the public library was victory. It dully arrived and was opened a couple of weeks ago (after the last seminar series), but it went all down hill from there. I read this book in the morning, early afternoon, even took it away on a romantic weekend (my husband must have wondered why he came), event the dusting at times became more interesting than the thought of picking up this book again. I tried to extend my loan, as I had only struggled through 1/2 of it when I got the email message to return it, but that was not possible. Reading faster, longer, more was simply not going to work, (I did get some things from it and will elaborate soon) as most of the words were just that words.

My question became;  How can some books simply turn your brain off, or scramble them into not understanding a word you read or make you feel like the dog on the current ANZ advert - where all the human’s around him have an ahha moment and their synapses simply go nuts, while his just stay putt in one place?? I really felt like that dog each time. I even tried to read it with the internet open, so that I could research each artist she mentioned or word I did not get. But this was silly, as 2 pages then took me 2 hours to read, as there were many words I had to look up and some artist.

My conclusion is that I simply do not do some “art speak”, “art read” or “art write”. I often struggle as soon as I read something written that way. I get no inspiration, often cannot draw any ‘learned’ conclusions, it makes me feel both completely out of my depth and also a little academically less capable. I think my brain is an analytical brain, a scientific brain, one that does question and challenge, but I think it thrives on logic. Many of the ‘art speak’ is not logic to me. This is not the first art book that I has me stumped, or for that matter any book (I could not do ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver. I gave it away after 3 attempts).

What also stumped me, is that I love reading. The turning point of me getting out of the muck, of changing this feeling of dread when I picked up a book was the other day. I had to return ‘the’ book and I can tell you the lightness I felt when I watched that book go down the slide at the library was big. With a lighter feeling I went to collect the next stack of ‘book lollies’ that was awaiting me (since we have become the super city, the library system is fantastic. While reading at home, login in you can look up any book, request it and have it delivered to you library of choice, superb).

The first book I opened while waiting at an appointment was Herbarium Amoris Floral Romance (by Edvard Koinberg), this book got me thinking. It is a botanical photography book, but with the context of the floral calendar of Carl Linnaeus behind it. Then yesterday afternoon I started to read Linnaeus The Compleat Naturalist (by Wilfrid Blunt). Now I was one of those people who’s synapses just went mad, the brain had trouble sleeping last night, with the creative thoughts and ideas it came up with.

These books are simply written, factual (even though On Photography has many facts) and obviously provide me with the text that inspires me and resonates with my practices :-) This experience has also made me realize another thing - one question that was asked of me at my last assessment was whether I needed to make a choice between process and content for my work. It was something I had also thought about for a while, but after this experience I do not think it is a decision I need to make. My practice will weave its way though plants and nature with a historical bend and will be guided by photography, print and other processes. Now a serious bit of this blog; What did I get out of 'On Photography':

  • Using a camera places an object between you and the subject - effectively distancing yourself - this can be seen as a way of dealing with what you capture (especially if it is horrific), separating yourself both emotionally and physically from the incident. Or as I experience it; blocking out the rest of the noise from the world that you are not interested in at that point in time.
  • As a photographer (of people) you decide to capture rather than aid a victim - I had never really thought of this until now and for me it brings to mind the image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc taken by Nick Ut ( running while her body is burning from a Napalm attack. Yes, the image did confront us with what was happening there, but has it stopped us human’s from doing other harm to others? Does ‘bringing this to you‘ make those of us who are not living amonsgt it more aware? It probably does, but only one person at a time, no different to any message anybody is trying to get out there. It is a slow, but continuous process.  Having this pointed out by Sontag does place a different spin on war or other horrific images I now see. It also makes me realize that I have not that ability to ‘turn off’ and simply capture.
  • The camera can be seen to be a weapon of aggression, especially in a war zone.
  • The activity of a photographer is willed, they go looking for something painful, different, even something beautiful - this relates to the fact that a photographer captures not aids (as discussed above). You have to have a mind set to be able to ignore the suffering around you. You have to strongly believe in what you are doing is helping these victims in a different way.
  • Photography has helped to provide imagery of things to the wider world, as many of us could not be in many of the places where images are made - this is for all images, not just war imagery.
  • Photography has also lowered the threshold of what is painful or out of bounds, it has desensitized us - how good is this? I believe what photography did/does to desensitize us, the internet is now doing it much faster.
  • Photography is blunt, it is truthful (as long as they have not been manipulised through photoshop) - there is no make belief here.
  • Photography was very much a tool of the middle class flaneur. Who often was more attracted to the dark seamy corners, rather than the city’s officials - we as human’s tend to be attracted to something other than our own culture or social status. This is not something new or only related to photography. Recently I watched Ans Westra photography documentary and her early work was very much along the lines of a flaneur - documenting Maori in the early 60’s and 70’s, as she was exposed to this culture after arriving from Holland.
  • Photography can be scientific/documentary or moralistic - Obviously very dependent on the aims of the photographer what is achieved. Neither are better and neither are wrong
  • Different countries ‘used’ photography in different ways: Europe was mostly guided by notions of picturesque, the important, the beautiful, they tended to praise or aim for neutrality. While the Americans took photo’s of what needed to be confronted, deplored or fixed up - This fascinated me and is something that I would like to look in further.
  • A photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates - These are great juxtaposing ideas of what photography does and certainly not a way I had thought of it before. To date me photography simply only records an image at that time, it does not physically damage anything, nor does it remove anything physical from a site. Once been and made the photo, no trace is left of the activity of a photographer on the physical site. From this point of view it only preserves.

But once I started to think about where the image may be seen, and what it does to the site ( = more people want to see it, this increases the human interaction, bringing with it those who maybe less honorable) I rethought this. It may also be the way the image is used, what message is it being used for? Then I can see that it can loot and denounce, especially when there is a clash of cultures and understanding. Especially in todays interconnected world, no image is seen only at a specific site anymore. As an event is posted on the net and then the image gets it’s own life. Thinking this way is unsettling and also something I want to think about for a while. Now that I have had a chance to think and write about it, I realize that: Even though the book gave me many moments of zzzzzz or wanting to run away, the part I read did gave me some valuable thoughts.

References: Sontag, Susan. (2002) On photography. Penguin, London GB

Posted by Elle Anderson

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