Different Ways to Point
We had an interesting conversation in Hokkaido one evening, and it stands out because when you put 15 photographers together for a meal, and there’s no shortage of drink, conversation tends to end up with everyone telling lies about how long they can hand-hold their long lens, or how Ansel Adams was a total hack. This time it was about the potential for photographers to tell better stories, which I believe we have. But I mis-communicated on a point when I emphasized the story-telling to the exclusion of other ways of pointing.
What I mean by that is this: Anne Lamott says that “art, to be art, must point at something.” I think she’s being descriptive here, and not saying what art must or must not be, but I think she’s right. I want my photography to point to the world I see, and in which I find great delight, and say, Look at this! I want my art to move the imagination and heart. And I believe stories, and the implied stories we can make with our photographs, are powerful. But stories are not the only way to move the human heart or mind.
Sometimes someone asks, David, what’s the story you’re trying to tell here? I stare at them blankly, because I’ve got no answer. It’s the wrong question. The question, for me, is What are you pointing at? Sometimes I’ll use elements of story. And sometimes I won’t. Words can be used to write narrative, but they can also be used to write poetry. Photographs, likewise, can be abstract or impressionist. They can be, simply, about line, shape, harmony, balance, tension, or colour. The image at the top of this post is not about story to me. Sure, I could make something up, but to me this photograph is more poetry than prose. It doesn’t make it weaker.
If you choose to use story, in your photograph, to point to something, it can be truly compelling. The human race has relied on story and the power of myth to give and communicate meaning, for thousands of years. But we point in many ways and there are things a story can not do. Don’t burden your work with the need to tell stories. Burden it, if it’s a burden at all, with the task of moving hearts and minds. The rest is a matter of how.