SHOW, DON’T TALK
Got a feeling inside (can’t explain)
It’s a certain kind (can’t explain)
I feel hot and cold (can’t explain)
Yeah, down in my soul, yeah (can’t explain)—–Pete Townshend
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY NEEDS MORE ARTISTS AND FEWER ART CRITICS. Period, full stop.
When it comes to imaging, those who can, do, and those who can’t, curate shows. Or pontificate on things they had no hand in creating. It’s just human nature. Some of us build skyscrapers and some of us are “sidewalk superintendents”, peering through the security fencing to cluck our tongues in scorn, because, you know, those guys aren’t doing it right.
Even wonderful pioneers in “appreciation” like the late John Szarkowski, one of the first curators of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art , and a tireless fighter for the elevation of photography to a fine art, often tossed up bilious bowlfuls of word salad when remarking on the work of a given shooter. As essays his remarks were entertaining. As explanations of the art, they were redundant.
What is this photograph “saying”? Well, that’s for you to decide, isn’t it?
This human need to explain things is vital if you’re trying to untie the knotted language of a peace treaty or complete a chemical equation, but it just adds lead boots to the appreciation of photography, which is to be seen, not read about (sassy talk for a blogger, no? Oh, well). No amount of captioning (even by the artist) can redeem a badly conceived photograph or make it speak more clearly. It all begins to sound like so many alibis, so many “here’s what I was going for” footnotes. Photography is visual and visceral. If you reached somebody, the title of the image could be “Study #245” and it still works. If not, you can append the biggest explanatory screed since the Warren Report and it’s still a lousy photo.
I’m not saying that all context is wrong in regard to a photo. Certainly, in these pages, we talk about motivation and intention all the time. However, such tracts can never be used to do the actual job of communicating that the picture is supposed to be doing. Asked once about the mechanics of his humor, Lenny Bruce spoke volumes by replying,” I just do it, that’s all.” I often worry that we use captioning to push a viewer one way or another, to suggest that he/she react a certain way, or interpret what we’ve done along a preferred track. That is the picture’s task, and if we fail at that, then the rest is noise.