Poets not painters

Why is it that so many photographers aspire to be painters (or at least want their work to look like paintings?) I never understood that since I never wanted to emulate painters. I always wanted my photographs to have the presumed veracity that we attribute to photographs. The fact that they are derived from reality is what makes them photographs. Over the decades that I have worked as a photographer (and the decades I have been hearing photographers long to be like painters) I have tried to come up with another creative persona for photographers to emulate, rather than painters.

I wrote my thesis in college about the vast differences between painting and photography. I was not approaching this question as an art historian but rather, I was looking at that same question from the point of view of a die-hard maker of what I call “documentary derived” photographic images. The most important difference between the two media, to me, is that photography is reductive (as in you start with all of life and you edit out most of the world to make your final image.) By comparison, painting or sculpture is additive (as in you start with nothing and build up the art work.)

What I have come to see, after four decades of photographing, is that the creative people that I most want to emulate are poets (or more specifically singer-song writers.) How did I figure that out? Over the last decade, I have spent a lot of time on long journeys listening to a limited musical play list. That list was initially limited by a simple lack of funds. As time went on, I realized that listening to the same material a few times was actually quite important. In the best songs, I am continually discovering new things in the music, the lyrics, the arrangements, the way the performer sings, etc.

One insight I gathered is how the best singer songwriters actually are continually paring back, cutting and cutting until only the bare bones remain. Bruce Springsteen, when he is at his finest, only needs a dozen words to set a scene, break a heart and hint at redemption. If you think about poetry, it often works the same way, with the best poets using as few words as possible to create a mood and offer a moment of insight. Similarly, the best poetry (and work by singer-song writers) is built on the idea of making some part of real life and the human experience more universal for all to appreciate. In the best cases they make poem or song that is so much more than a simple news item, ideally a widely shared exploration of the human experience.

To carry the parallels further, in the best work of a singer-song writer like Jackson Browne, the actual music, the choice of instruments, the tempo, pace, changes in volume, etc., all work the same way as composition, framing, focus, etc., work in a photograph. All of the elements used in making a song or a photograph, collectively express the mood the author wants to create. As for the actual narrative that follows the mood that is being created, in a a song, it is usually the lyrics, like the content of the photograph that builds the narrative. Another example of this is the early work of Billy Joel. Listening to the music that precedes the lyrics, at the start of his song, Worse Comes To Worst, gets you in the mood for the journey he is about to take the listener on.

If you think about it, that is an important lessons for photographers. No, photographs don’t literally unfold over time like songs or poems. But they are experienced by the viewer over time (and on two levels.) There is the first, instant and intuitive reaction, which is usually a response to the formal issues of the photograph and then there is the intellectual experience of that same image. The second reaction unfolds over a longer period of time as the viewer comes to terms with the narrative of the image. The collective experience of both the instant and the intellectual reactions is what make or breaks the photograph for the viewer.

My interest in all of this may be a result of growing up in a household that had a limited devotion to art and a stronger interest in popular culture. That may explain my lack of an obvious passion for paintings. Or it might be that I understand my chosen medium, both how I practice it and how others experience the work I make. Or it may be I know where I stand, given a choice between the model of a painter in the studio building his art from his imagination vs the poet drawing on his encounters with life in the real world.

One response to “Poets not painters”

  1. Clement Greenberg, the critic that pretty much shaped Amercian Modernism, said that photography was closer to literature than to other visual arts such as painting. Walker Evans also said over and over that his main influences were Flaubert and Baudelaire. Although both, Greenberg and Evans, were probably trying to cover their tracks a bit, I still think they had a point.

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