Thinking about photographs, not photography

I spend a great deal of time thinking about photography (duh.) Recently, I had some encounters where I was pressed to think about the photograph itself. As I was thinking about that, I noted that most of my energy is concentrated on the process of photographing, rather than on the outcome of that process, the actual photograph. As I listened to other people talking about actual photographs, I had a “chicken vs. egg” moments, where I was unclear, which came first, the process of photography or the product?

I am one of those people who enjoy seeing their dentist. He has a great personality, a good sense of humor and a very gentle touch with his drill(s.) He is also very up to date on the latest dental technology, so each visit to his office is a lesson in the newest tools. Recently, he was showing me his latest gear, a D-SLR camera with a ring flash on the front. Not surprisingly, he had a few questions about how to use that, which I happily answered. Then he showed me some photos he had made and told me how he was going to use them. Of course he was photographing his patient’s teeth for record keeping purposes. More importantly, the photographs he was making showed how good (and bad) dental habits impacted his patient’s teeth. For him, the photograph serves as a tool to educate (and maybe even gently scare,) his patients, so they would change their behavior.

One of my recent students served in the Marine Corps. One night over dinner, we got onto the topic of photographs as symbols. He talked about how different images were being used during his time in the military, to motivate the soldiers in service, as well as to entice others to sign up. If you look at the recent advertising for any branch of the armed forces, you will see how much they use imagery to sell the idea of military service and by extension, enlisting. The really striking part was how he experienced the evolution of imagery of the Marine Corps, during his time in the military. In the eyes of the ex-Marine I was speaking with, the psychological low point in terms of images of the Marines was Bill Foley’s 1983 image of injured Marines being evacuated on stretchers from the bombed out remains of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. My dinner companion pointed out how that photo stands in stark contrast to Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 iconic World War II photograph, showing six soldiers raising the US flag on Iwo Jima. The older photograph has certainly become an icon in American history. For the ex-Marine I was speaking with, that iconic photograph is the preferred visual identity of the Marine Corps in general and him in particular.

I was talking with a photographer/teacher/collector in California recently about the onslaught of digital photography. Although he acknowledged the benefits of digital photography for assignment work and for teaching, he still prefers working with film. While he admits that digital printing technologies gets better by the day, as a serious collector of photography, he strongly prefers silver based prints. The walls of his home display a veritable time-line of the history of photography. For him, the finished silver based photograph, the actual object, is the key thing to be collected and cherished.

All of these perspectives on the actual photograph(s) vs. the process of photography swirled through my head during the exhibition opening of my work from India, “Concurrence: India marching backwards into the future,” at the Chazan Gallery in Providence. Here is an image of the entrance to the show and an image of one corner of the gallery:

I was in California when the show was hung, so I had hired a gallerist to install the show. (If you are in New England and you need someone to install a show, let me know because Chris Murphy, whom I worked with, is first rate.) I did NOT give Chris any directions concerning what order to install the work. I wanted to see how he reacted to the work.

I usually hand over the structuring/ordering of the show to the curator who I am working with on a given show. I do this because I want to see how they experience the images that I made. In this case, here are some views of some of the final sets and sequences that the gallerist made using my work.

I was very pleased with the way the work looked. Others attending the opening also commented to me on the interesting dynamic that the complete exhibition created. Yes, I had gone through the process of photographing to make the work. But, it took another person, with an appreciation of the actual, finished product, the photographs, to assemble the work into an exhibition that resonated with the viewers.

Because I focus mostly on the process, I sometimes neglect the larger lesson of the interconnection between process and product. In the short term the process results in the product, but in the long term they are more symbiotic. We learn and grow from our photographs, improving our process by studying our products.

This led to a “chicken vs. egg” moment, spurring a broader question that most photographers could learn from. When it comes to your photography, which is more important, why is that so and which comes first, the photography or the photograph?

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