For as long as we know, we have tried to classify things. Linnaeus is the name we associate, scientifically at least, with classification but when modernity got bored of its own dogmatic organization, post modernism was born. The trouble with post modernism is that it fragments and falls apart into individualism, reification and self-defeating senselessness (the proverbial snake eating its own tail). And what on earth has all this got to do with photography?
Everything and nothing, depending on if you are a post modernist. But I thought I would try and play devil’s advocate this month in response to Emil’s Light Writing titled, “Why I call myself a landscape photographer”. Here goes. I hope it makes sense.
Sense. That is all classification is - an attempt to try and make sense. Attempting to make sense is also what we do as photographers when we approach our subjects (portraits, landscapes, conflicts, wildlife, still life, whatever) and that is what we do when we look at/see images (looking and seeing are not the same thing by the way). We take what we know and combine it with the didactic content of the image, and then draw on both, to try make sense of the scene/image before us. More simply put: the viewer weighs in heavily with context, the image provides the content, and together we make meaning. The problem with classification is that it is so often an uncomfortable, albeit, best available fit.
Jiang Rong interviewed Don Mc Cullin in 2006. Arguably one of the greatest war photographers, Mc Cullin had just received a Cornell Capa Award and Rong, noting Mc Cullin’s aversion to being called a war photographer, asks why. Mc Cullin’s answer: “It doesn’t have a nice ring to the name war photographer…. It makes me seem like all I can do is photograph war.” As Emil points out the man now photographs British landscapes. The point is categorization often seems inadequate. Mc Cullin later tells Rong, “You can’t imagine how many things I can do photographically…. I am a wide range person and hate to be categorized. Why do we have to have titles? Why can’t we just be photographers?” I was asked exactly this by Brent Meistre, my Master’s supervisor. I was concerned with how, or where, I fitted into the photographic classification system. I had a Bachelor of Journalism degree and was now tread watering in the deep end of Fine Art. It seems that perhaps the answer lies not in what we call ourselves but in what we are called.
In Rong’s interview Mc Cullin is called a ‘war photographer’. Emil calls him a ‘conflict photographer’. I would too. What’s the difference? Probably nothing other than that in Mc Cullin’s heyday they were called ‘war photographers’. These days ‘conflict’ is more current, being preferred most likely because there are simply more conflicts than wars. A nation has to declare war, but people can just go and get on with a conflict. And photographers can flock to photograph it.
I agree with Emil and think he comes very close to making sense of why a landscape has a particular kind of affinity for photographers and viewers alike: “the desire to translate one’s own feelings towards that land”. In many ways though, this is what we do with all photographs/photography: translate our feelings, making some sense of it, and in the process, ourselves. But there is even more to it than that. Landscape as subject material is different to ‘landscape’, a chosen approach when photographing.
The key is in the word ‘contemplative’. I have made photographic studies of a number of subjects with a landscape approach, ranging in diversity from pieces of land no bigger than an A3 page, debris placed in a studio, even corpses. Indeed, the body (not necessarily deceased) is a favorite subject among artists when it comes to this approach (see Bill Brandt’s seashore nudes in his Perspective of Nudes series for example).
It must be said though, that there is certainly something very rewarding in being presented with the vastness of a physical landscape, squinting through the tiny peephole that is the viewfinder, and striving for the reward of an intimate, emotional, and aesthetically striking capture. There is great skill, satisfaction and power, in the God-like ‘arranging’ of elements and features in landscape photography. Elements vast and huge, arranged and ‘placed’ only by the photographer’s careful choice of position, lens selection, camera settings etc. Personally, I love this challenge. I especially love it when I know there is an image hidden in there, the landscape, somewhere. It is ephemeral. I get a glimpse, a tease, and then it is gone! I just haven’t managed to see all of it - yet. I need to contemplate. I must look with both eyes, not just one, and see. Once I have seen, I can separate ‘it’, extract ‘it’ and ‘take’ the picture. And this is why I could never call myself a landscape photographer. Its not that I don’t enjoy landscape photography, I do - immensely. But landscape photography, for me lacks surprise. Add to this the onslaught of digital photography and its capacity for instant gratification, and landscape photography can be stubbornly unsurprising. The results may remain pleasing, inspiring and breathtaking, but for the meditative landscape photographer, contemplating and constructing away, the unexpected is her nemesis.
This leads us into another important point, one that Emil also makes. What is the point? “What moves me as a photographer and a person?” Why do we do what we do, or chose to define ourselves in this way, via the images that we make? Sometimes, I suspect the photography that we enjoy can be likened to fishing. It is not always about the fish. Often it is, and fish in the bottom of the boat certainly helps to measure success. Likewise, sometimes photography is less about the photographs. It is more about being and not just ‘getting’. Photography, not photograph. Process, not product. This is perhaps why I love wildlife photography. I love being in the space, amongst the landscapes where the animals are. That and the fact that my photographic interest was born out of a decade spent working as a professional safari guide.
So what do I call myself? A photographer? I have to. I am too scared to classify myself. But ‘photographer’ is a category unto itself isn’t it? Then again ‘photographer’ seems so unsatisfactory, nonspecific and loose. How can I expect to separate myself (therefore classify myself) as a ‘professional photographer’, distinguishing myself from the ever invasive ‘run and gun’; shoot it now, shoot it again and again, and again, choose later, don’t stop, don’t look, don’t see, don’t contemplate, type of photographer? Why should I? I have come across so called professional photographers who think ‘P’ on a camera’s shooting mode stands for ‘professional’ and ‘A’ for automatic – true story! Maybe I am a ‘photographic artist’? My MFA says I could be. But then again I have come across those whose artistry with the camera extends to being able to hold the camera at a 45° angle and whose creative expertise is demonstrated by their ability to locate and apply filters in photoshop.
So what should I call myself? Tell you what … why don’t you decide. The devil’s advocate is off to find a hobby.