ON THE NOSE (AND OFF)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMONG THE GROUPS INVITING FLICKR USERS TO POST PHOTOGRAPHS OF A CERTAIN THEME OR TYPE, there is a group called, “This Should Be A Postcard”, apparently composed of images that are so iconically average that they resemble mass-produced tourist views of scenic locales. The name of this group puzzles me. I mean, if you called it, “Perfectly Ordinary, Non-Offensive and Safe Pictures of Over-Visited Places”, people would write you off as a troll, but I’d at least give you points for accuracy. It’s hard to understand why any art would aspire to look like something that is almost deliberately artless.
And still, it is perceived as a compliment to one’s work to be told that it “looks just like a postcard”, and, I swear, when I hear that remark about one of my own images, my first reaction is to wipe said image from the face of the earth, since that phrase means that it is (a)average, (b) unambitious), (c) unimaginative, or (d) a mere act of “recording”. Look, here’s the famous place. It looks just like you expect it to, taken from the angle that you’re accustomed to, lit, composed and executed according to a pre-existing conception of what it’s “supposed” to be. How nice.
And how unlike anything photography is supposed to be about.
This conditioning we all have to render the “official” view of well-known subjects can only lead to mediocrity and risk aversion. After all, a postcard is tasteful, perfect, symmetrical, orderly. And eventually, dull. Thankfully, the infusion of millions of new photographers into the mainstream in recent years holds the potential cure for this bent. The young will simply not hold the same things (or ways to view them) in any particular awe, and so they won’t even want to create a postcard, or anyone else’s version of one. They will shudder at the very thought of being “on the nose”.
I rail against the postcard because, over a lifetime, I have so shamelessly aspired to it, and have only been able to let go of the fantasy after becoming disappointed with myself, then unwilling to keep recycling the same approach to subject matter even one more time. For me, it was a way of gradually growing past the really formalized methods I had as a child. And it’s not magic.Even a slight variation in approach to “big” subjects, as in the above image, can stamp at least a part of yourself onto the results, and so, it’s a good thing to get the official shot out of the way early on in a shoot, then try every other approach you can think of. Chances are, your keeper will be in one of the non-traditional approaches.
Postcards say of a location, wish you were here. Photographs, made by you personally, point to your mind and say, “consider being here.”
You really nail it here. While I do enjoy some postcards it’s usually for boring documentation reasons or even comic value – not anything to do with inspiration or creativity. The postcard (or calendar) may be pleasing on some level but it’s not art – just as potato chips or french fries can be a tasty snack but I certainly don’t consider them to be nutritious food that replaces a healthy meal cooked with love. I’m with you, please don’t say to me my image looks like a postcard! That comment may be said out of good intentions (albeit lazy, unconscious ones) but is indeed an insult which as you say is little more than saying it’s mediocre and completely expected and there’s nothing exciting or stimulating here. I think the sheer volume of images in our lives has pushed us to the point of indigestion and we all reach a saturation point where we don’t want to think, or be challenged, or even inspired any more. A very sad state if you ask me so, perhaps we just need to be more selective in what we observe, take in, and allow to clutter our lives. No easy task in today’s world…
July 5, 2014 at 10:40 PM
You just reminded me that, when Richard Nixon first beheld the Great Wall of China, he reputedly said, “It looks just like a postcard”. That may be symptomatic of the problem that you just outlined. And I agree that there is a saturation point in the sheer volume of imagery visible today. Photography has been truly democratized, and that is both a blessing and a challenge…
July 5, 2014 at 11:03 PM