Memory, Narration and Curation in Photography by Mick Yates

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In recent meetings and photo shoots with friends, I have been attempting to self-appraise my photography – when do I shoot my best work, when do I not? Perhaps a little presumptuously, what is my signature style, when am I doing a good job? And therefore what should I focus on in 2015?

Having been a “serious” photographer my entire post-teenage life, it has probably been too easy to slip into travel snaps, family record keeping and simple reportage. In the past eighteen months, I have been getting into “street” photography quite seriously (and even published on the subject). Yet, it does seem that a little more thought is required, before pressing that shutter release.

So, how should we think of our “photographic voice“?

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A perfect place to start is “The Decisive Moment” (1952) by Henri Cartier-Bresson, just re-published in a superb edition. I was lucky enough to receive this as a Christmas present.

My favourite paragraph?

“Memory is very important, particularly in respect to the recollection of every picture you’ve taken while you’ve been galloping at the speed of the scene itself. The photographer must make sure, while he is still in the presence of the unfolding scene, that he hasn’t left any gaps, that he has really given expression to the meaning of the scene in its entirety, for afterward it is too late. He is never able to wind the scene backward in order to photograph it all over again.”

Whilst Cartier-Bresson is adamantly against the “shoot everything as fast as you can” approach that is used by so many with high-speed DSLRs (myself included), he absolutely advocates extracting the maximum possible meaning from the scene presented to the photographer.

He goes on to say:

“There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as well as in our personal universe. We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.

Subject does not consist of a collection of facts, for facts in themselves offer little interest. Through facts, however, we can reach an understanding of the laws that govern them, and be better able to select the essential ones which communicate reality.”

So the subject is all important, but the reality of the subject isn’t a simple depiction.

I have also been reading John Berger’s “Understanding a Photograph” (1967), where he addresses “memory” in photography.

“I am not saying that memory is a kind of film. That is a banal simile. … Unlike memory, photographs do not in themselves preserve meaning. They offer appearances – with all the credibility and gravity we normally lend to appearances – prised away from meaning. Meaning is the result of understanding functions.”

“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances. Habit now protects us against the shock involved in such preservation.”

Simply capturing an image, however technically skilled, without giving it a meaning is not enough. Narration is needed.

Berger also notes:

“Memory is not unlinear at all. Memory works radially, that is too say with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.”

And

“When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future. … Yet unlike the storyteller or painter or actor, the photographer only really makes, in any one photograph, a single constitutive choice: the choice of the instant to be photographed. The photograph, compared with other means of communication, is therefore weak in intentionality.”

Looking at an image as a mere “instance” isn’t enough to provide any real meaning.

In reviewing my own work, I “feel” most comfortable when telling a story. Une histoire. In recent times, two of my images seem the most satisfactory in this regard, both offering a pictorial examination of an “event”.

The first I have referenced before, showing a short-lived interplay between worlds at a pedestrian crossing, in Dublin. There’s lots of context and content in this shot – layered memories perhaps. I just love the expression on the girl’s faces, and the almost “defiant” attitude of the ‘lady”.

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The second, in Glasgow, was taken late at night in the rain, with two young women, obviously seeking a party, sheltering together almost against the odds.

There is context and layered content, and a capture that tried to sum things up at that exact time for the two women.

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Both are telling a story. And, interestingly, both are amongst my most liked recent pictures on social media. Of course, one should never be swayed by false praise (how do we value “likes”?), but it does seem to me that art is so often “in the eye of the beholder”, whatever the artist’s intent, so it is a useful view about how others see images.

Berger led me to read more, including Susan Sontag, in On Photography (1977)

“ … such [photographic] images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real.”

This seems to underpin the idea that the photographer is interpreting the real, as a photograph combines both gritty reality at that moment, and the artist’s interpretation or composition built around it – the “memory” he or she is attempting to create.

That said, Sontag also noted:

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

If people are never “seen as themselves”, in a sense their very existence is being curated, moment by moment, by the photographer.

The photographer should thus, at least in a  “street” sense, be about both narration (the story) and curation (the moment of memory that is chosen). And the subjects are captured almost like Schrödinger’s Cat – you only see their true reality in that exact moment of capture, however much you might like to ponder the before and the after.

Berger’s references to other forms of communication led to Berthold Brecht, where I found this passage appropriate.

“Portrayal of Past and Present in One” 

Stand out, without in the process hiding

What you are making it stand out from. Give your acting

That progression of one-thing-after-another, that attitude of

Working up what you have taken on. In this way

You will show the flow of events and also the course

Of your work, permitting the spectator

To experience this Now on many levels, coming from

Previously and

Merging into Afterwards, also having much else now

Alongside it. He is sitting not only

In your theatre but also

In the world.

From John Willett, Brecht’s translator, attributed to poems Brecht wrote between 1947-1953.

The photographer’s job is thus very much like the actor’s. Both want to involve their audience, even though they use different means.

The photographer, though, unlike the actor, can only involve the viewer by curating the most appropriate moment. A fragment of time (or perhaps a series of fragments), rather than an extended performance.

Yet in that fragment of time, there must be both depiction of the reality of the moment, with enough narration (content, context) in the composition to suggest to the viewer that they can see beyond that very same moment, both past and future.

That will truly engage the viewer.

A sound challenge for 2015!

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Images taken with either Leica M9-P or Leica M-P, processed in Color Efex Pro. Henri probably wouldn’t approve, but he did say colour was in its infancy when he was writing in 1952 …

Leica M6 TTL, Tri-Elmar 28-35-50 pictured.

Mick Yates

http://micksphotoblog.com/

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