By MICHAEL PERKINS
Two men looked out from prison bars; one saw mud, and the other saw stars.–proverb attributed to Dale Carnegie
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ONLY SEVERAL DECADES OLD WHEN IT WAS FIRST PRESSED INTO SERVICE to chronicle the world’s great comings and goings. The 19th century’s primitive print technology delayed the arrival of news photographs in the popular press for a while, but, once rotogravures and other methods caught up with the camera, the dizzying daily mix of wars, crimes, fancies and foibles that we call news began to be “illustrated” by photos, and we have never looked back since. If photography has a mission in the world, we came to believe, it is to use its unblinking eye to catch humanity in the act of behaving, well, like humanity. That reportorial bent, born in the 1800’s, still places a similar burden, by extension, on all photographers. We are supposed to Reveal The Facts, Get At The Truth, and Bear Witness.
So-called “street photography” has its roots in the works of crusading pioneers like Jacob Riis, the reporter turned photographer whose stark depiction of Manhattan slum life in the book How The Other Half Lives moved fellow reformers like Teddy Roosevelt to take action against that city’s brutal poverty. All these decades later, we place a certain trust in images that show the seamier or harsher side of life. Even those of us who aren’t officially campaigning to make the world a better place click off millions of “real” images of gritty cities, abandoned people, or hopeless conditions. We tend to regard these images as more authentic than the ones we create of things that poetic, or beautiful.
But this is a flawed viewpoint. We can, if we choose, look through the bars and see only the mud. But that doesn’t mean that marveling at the stars is any less important, or that beholding the beautiful is somehow a frivolous or non-serious pursuit. In fact, we need beauty to keep our souls from being crushed and rendering ourselves useless to do anything noble or good. Beauty is a template, a blueprint for the fulfillment of life, and we can’t even measure how far we’ve wandered toward the mud unless we know the distance we are from the stars.
Photography is “for” beauty, just as it is “for” everything else in human experience. We can, and should, be moved by cracked windows and wrecked alleys, to be sure, but it is our knowledge of the lark and the mountain that remind us why ugliness offends us. The fuller we are as humans, the better we are as photographers.
Don’t ignore the mud. That would be stupid. But keep your eyes, both yours and your camera’s, on the stars as well.