German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was not a photographer, though many of his observations on art and life are surprisingly applicable to photography. Among other pearls of wisdom, he observed, “Objects in pictures should so be arranged as by their very position to tell their own story.” In this simple sentence are contained two important notions: first, that composition (the arrangement of elements) can be deliberately applied to convey a meaning of the artist’s choosing, and second, that pictures can communicate stories – a quality generally reserved for verbal or written language.
Stories can be factual, or they can be fiction; they can be in the form of essays, poems, haikus, proverbs, or novels. They may revolve around a moment in time, or they can unfold over years or decades or longer. Some are best told in books, some in images or song or dance. The stories I wish to tell in my own work, however, are not quite poems or novels; they are not entirely fiction, nor entirely fact. I like to think of them as journal entries – personal impressions of memorable times and experiences. Journals are based on real events, but at the same time they are personal and subjective. They are not meant to provide an objective account of events, but rather focus on those aspects of an experience that the author found most interesting or profound.
Some artists, and particularly photographers, often refer to their work in terms of interpretation, which serves to add a personal dimension to the work, yet still remains faithful to objective characteristics of the subject portrayed. Others venture further, using visual elements in symbolic or metaphorical ways to express a wholly personal story – what Alfred Stieglitz, Minor White and others referred to as “Equivalence.” This is a topic of much contention among photographers, many of whom see the purpose of their work as relaying unique events and aesthetics in an objective way. This is a position I greatly respect, as I draw much of my inspiration from the wild and am often awed by the timeless beauty of natural phenomena. Still, while these are important influences in my work, I choose to place higher value on the degree to which my images reflect my own inner impressions.
Photographer Edward Weston described his work as, ‘Significant representations – not interpretation.’ This is an important distinction as significance originates from the mind of the artist, as opposed to
interpretation, which attempts to explain the reality of the subject photographed.
I find the photographic medium especially well-suited to the creation of visual journals. Photography is unique among the visual arts in that it can be both literal and subjective at the same time. For better or worse, photography comes with a pervasive belief of being founded in reality, to an extent that is not possible in other media. A painting, sculpture or score of music will never possess the photograph’s ability to arrest the actual signature of light reflected off an actual subject, and as such, possess within it something of a real thing.
I propose that works of personally meaningful art are the equivalents of journal entries, and the process of their creation, much like the writing of a journal distills the essence of what makes experiences, thoughts and, ultimately, a life, significant to the artist. In telling your own story, you also become more attuned to the way in which your life is unfolding and whether it lives up to the things you hold important. As both the narrator and the protagonist in a story woven of your own experiences and thoughts, you are not merely a passive voice objectively chronicling events outside your control, you are also the author of your own story, having the power to guide it – to guide yourself – in meaningful and rewarding directions. To an artist, life begets art and art begets life.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 43 of Landscape Photography Magazine.