Seeing & Looking
Paradox in photography
This summer, in a town square, I saw a street performer named Will the "talking mime" who squeezed his entire body through the open, unstrung head of a tennis racket. Will is the only talking mime in the world; the contradition made me think of other contradictions, and, since I make photographs, other paradoxical ideas in photography.
My goal here is to nudge you to look for things that are the opposite of what you expect. Why? Because a photograph is never a representation of an object, it is a representation of an idea. Expanding our idea space is a wonderful thing, despite what Henri Cartier Bresson thinks:
And no thinking. Ideas are very dangerous. You must think all the time, but when you photograph you are not trying to prove a point or demonstrate something. ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson
Ever since that great day in 1929 when the first permanent photograph came to be, paradox has been at the heart of photography, and many photographers have created images based on paradoxical ideas. This is somewhat abstract, so let's look at four statements of contradiction and paradox in photography.
1. A photograph that is simultaneously sharp and blurred.
2. A photograph shows a moment in time that no longer exists, and because it captures a moment, it also is about the death of that moment (Barthes).
3. "An image possesses none of the properties of the object represented" ~ Unberto Eco
4. "The paradox of photography is that it belongs to nature and culture at one and the same time." ~ Daniel Rubenstein
Paradoxes may have seemed absurd at the time. Take a photo in total darkness? Well, that was a paradox in the past. No longer.
Two opposing ideas do not have to be true at the same time. An ideas in photograph evolve, they balance out what at first seemed like irreconcilable contractions.
Consider two examples. First, the idea of a small portable camera for quality images failed when it first came out, but after time passed, it became a mantra. Second, although each scene occurs only once in a specific, unique place and time, we photographers can reproduce our scenes ad infinitum.
We can again thank French philosopher Roland Barthes for that one.
We deny contradiction when we should actively seek it out instead. It's cozy to stay with what is familiar. We dine on the familiar and read what we already know; this is what makes Google and our online world so comfy. Resist this. Making images, search out the new, the unfamiliar and the contradictory. Try to live outside your own bubble.
No matter how much you believe something to be true, keep asking questions in your photography. Is the opposite also valid? If I pretend the opposite it also true, what happens ? There are many many ways to see, photograph, and think about the real, unreal and surreal.
As creators, we will generate a lot more energy. We spend so much energy striving for consistency, but when we hold the reality of photography's paradox in out thoughts, the images become much more powerful. Your magnificent unique brain has the immense capacity to engage in two opposing views simultaneously. How you balance the two opposing views evolves from your experiences, beliefs and opinions.
LINKS: 1. Art of Creative Photography
Photos and Writings by Jim Austin Jimages
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