On Photography - Sontag's Ecology Of ImagesSunday, August 09, 2009
The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals. It suited Plato’s derogatory attitude towards images to liken them to shadows – transitory, minimally informative, immaterial, impotent co-presences of the real things which cast them. But the love of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality – for turning it [in italics in book by author] into a shadow. Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy, if there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require ecology not only of real things but of images as well.
The last paragraph of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, 1977
I have photographed many sports once. It's after you photograph them that you become an expert and not before. Only practice at a sport with a camera will allow the photographer to realize when peak and important moments happen. In baseball when the bat connects with the ball, at that very moment the bat and ball are at rest. The same happens in ballet and modern dance. If the photographer captures the movement before that peak of completion, the picture will most often look ungraceful. Movements have to be caught at the end.
The photographer who was an expert at this was New Zealand born American photographer George Silk (1916, 2004) who shot sports pictures for Life Magazine. I remember reading in a magazine a quote from him in which he said (I cannot quote it exactly), "I have had access to the fastest motor drives for cameras. I can shoot at 18 frames per second. I have noticed that the best shot is most often between frames." What Silk was saying is that the photographer, after some experience, is able to predict and anticipate that peak movement. A machine motor drive cannot.
When editorial photography began to languish some years ago I was forced to cut my costs wherever I could. The insurance of my cameras was the first to go. I had come to the conclusion that in owning duplicate equipment I could afford to lose half of it to theft. Then instead of charging clients for a whole box of Polaroid (20 exposures) I began to charge for the actual number of Polaroids taken. I learned, too the frugality of shooting fewer exposures with my 10 exposure Ektachrome film. At some point I freaked out an art director when I showed him an assignment I had shot with two exposures. His comment did not trouble me, "One of these works for me. But what if it didn't? You don't have enough of a range. You are going to get into trouble." I cannot remember when he ever assigned me to re-shoot anything. But I do know that I have finished assignments with half the roll of film exposed and feel it wasteful to have the film processed without shooting the rest, just in case. I have not allowed that to bother me and I have had film processed or processed my rolls of b+w film that were not all exposed. The urgency to provide a magazine with results prevented me from waiting to expose the film on other projects or assignments. But I have conserved my system of noticing as much as I can what I am about to shoot before I press the shutter.
As I watch the average person shooting their digital cameras or my students at school it is patently evident that they do not believe in Sontag's ecology of images. They shoot a lot and often. When I ask to see three of their best images many of my students have a problem selecting three.
For a while I had some of my more gullible students worried when I invented the term "etching your sensor". I told them that the constant and rapid firing of their digital SLRs would etch their expensive sensors and the repair would be expensive.
Elements of my Mamiya are 30 years old. Film cameras really did not go through the rapid obsolescence of modern digital cameras. My guess is what modern photographers save in not using film has to be set aside to buy new and improved equipment.
As a teenager I used to haunt the used cameras stores in Mexico City and I would stare and lust after those Edixas, Praktinas, Leicas, etc. I do believe that obsolete digital cameras must go to the same place that a sock in the drier goes when it mysteriously disappears.
I wonder if Sontag could have ever known that her idea of ecology of images would some day be in so critical a stage of application as it is now. So many pictures and so many of them that are the same. So many pictures and so few are essences. Plato would have deplored it all.
Above is a sequence that I took of Rebecca at a tea shop in Punta del Este, Uruguay in 2004. The final image, bottom right was the one. I stopped right there.
Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one's cone of vision, while standing at the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite.