In a recent article called A Disturbing Trend in Photography the photographer and educator Neal Rantoul identifies a trend in photography, where the picture seems overwhelmed by the textual narrative surrounding it. In Rantoul words:
For most works [in recent portfolio reviews], separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on.For most works [in recent portfolio reviews], separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on.
He comes to the conclusion that:
This resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely.This resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely.
The underlying assumption of Rantouls argument is not a new one; a good photograph should speak for itself, otherwise it is not a good photograph. No words needed for communication of a visual message. A good many classical photographers from Ansel Adams to Edward Weston indeed shied away from explaining their work.
But there are other examples even from the golden past. Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother (1936) has certainly timeless qualities on the theme of motherhood and human suffering. And still, the picture was meant, and is, a historical document about the recession in the U.S. in the 1930s. The Madonna reminiscence the photograph evokes is there to illustrate a point: a moral call to action to end the suffering. In this combination of emotional appeal and context lies much of the strength of the picture.
Another example, and one close to my heart, is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Pine Trees (2001). In this work Sugimoto re-enacts/re-interprets a classical Japanese painintg by Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610). The same idea underlies an ongoing project of mine. But it is difficult to enter an understanding of Sugimoto’s work without having the context he provides on his website. The way in which Tohaku’s theme is transformed makes Sugimoto’s work so interesting. In goes a classical work, out comes something unmistakingly Sugimoto. But without this art-historical background, how could one understand what the photographer does? That still doesn’t mean there is nothing to the photographs themselves.
Where goes the line? I would agree with Rantoul that text or context should not replace the visual message. Context in my view should allow the viewer to enter the picture, but not exhaust its meaning. This is obviously a fuzzy line and one that this blog will happily explore, maybe sometimes transgress or playfully circumvent for my own work. In short: this blog is all about the wider context in which my work is created and exists.