Portrayal or betrayal?

I’m reading about some of the photographers deemed great in this country, going back to the late 1800’s to the mid-1900’s.  A casual student of photography would recognize the names and probably seen some of the images.

The discussion around why they are considered great and some insight into their efforts to “do” photography is interesting.  The struggle with what makes a great image – is it technique or artistry?  The struggle with photography itself – is it a process or a medium?  The internal search by the photographer to “find” a connection between their desire for an image and the resulting physical image – is it possible to accurately portray what a person sees in such a way as to resonate the same emotion in other viewers?

Some of these pioneers of modern photography simply ignored any such discussions as distractions from the work they did, taking an individualistic approach to the craft and essentially saying, “this is what I do – if you like it fine, if you don’t – fine with me.”  Others attempt to mold their efforts into existing or emerging trends in artistic representation, trying to use photography as another means of communicating the concepts behind cubism, post-modernism, pictorial, etc.

All art seems to generate these searching efforts, polarizing some along lines of distain and disagreement, joining others into common cause to a desired message.  The argument as to whether photography is an art seems moot in the face of these discussions – the very polarizing effects of art are mirrored in discussions about photography so how could it not be art?

I go through these arguments in my head as well, hoping to find a resolution that answers basic questions:  why do I photograph?  what am I trying to portray? is there meaning or simply illustration?

Regardless of where the opinion makers land on this it is obvious we humans are drawn to images.  It seems not important to our appreciation of an image what the photographer was trying to “say” as long as some aspect of the image “says” something to the viewer.  And thus the quandary – can a photographer create an image with something being “said” to any viewer?  Or do they make images that “say” something to them and if that is shared by another then that’s OK?

Attempt to make images that are universally popular and the effect becomes stale and ignored quickly.  Make images drawing on some internal, individual vision of the world and there’s the risk no one will look at them from lack of context and connection.

It seems from my reading these great photographers were driven by an internal force, one that shaped how they approached a composition and used tools available to create images.  They were able to make that force visible for us to see, and be appreciated by those who either share it or long to embrace it.

They made images they were happy to be known as having made.


2 thoughts on “Portrayal or betrayal?

  1. My mind is ready to explode from all of the deep questions that you have posed, Mel. Why indeed do we take photos? I think that all photographers are haunted to some degree by that existential question. For me, it’s worth pondering and considering these issues, even if I don’t come to any firm conclusions. I really like the images you have presented, especially the first one.


    • Thanks, Mike. I feel anyone who moves beyond the snapshop with their photography starts pondering these questions. At some point for me technical skills come up empty – I have to search for a different reason to pick up my camera. Let me know what you learn.


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