In this last part of this series, it is time to have a look at the implications of an Ethics of Balance for making photographs. In the previous part I mentioned, again, that there is no photograph without a point of view. I also argued that this viewpoint is not merely a location, but signifies the photographer’s overall approach. This approach consists of the photographer’s aesthetic model, his/her worldview, beliefs and convictions together with both emotional starting conditions and reactions. All of these elements together with the scene form an event that leads to a photograph.
Ok, ok, I have to de-construct and untwist this.
On part of the subject, the way it presents itself is much dependent on the lightning and, in case of landscapes, the season, weather and so on. One can’t look at the same scene twice! But also the photographer arrives at the scene in a certain mood and processes, and reacts to, what is seen. It is this interaction with the scene that makes a picture of a lonely barn in a field from just a scene of a barn in a field during inclement weather.
How the photographer shows the scene is what I call the aesthetic model about which I have written often on this blog. I call these my Asian influences but in fact the aesthetic model forms from all the sources from which a photographer has learned composition, use of colours or tonality and, more generally, acquired an aesthetic taste.
But back to the example of the lonely barn: In my view there is a dormant problem there. If the picture starts to be only about the loneliness of the scene, we are actually at a picture of a mood or an idea of the photographer. The scene itself becomes, kind of, replaceable and secondary.
This, I think, is what happened in Western Art at the beginning of the 20th century. As I mentioned earlier, Piet Mondrian, in the 1910s and 1920s, went from painting ever more simplified trees to, what he called, a depiction of “pure reality”, which was for him best expressed in radically simplified forms, colours and tones. This pure reality, he wrote, consisted of a balanced relationship between general principles that underlie a tension, like mind and nature, or what he called the male and female principle. But when I then read that the vertical lines are supposed to show the male principle and the horizontal lines the female, I can’t help thinking: really? While one can dismiss this kind of approach to the sexes as early 20th century male thinking, there is still something noteworthy here: In his abstractions, Mondrian actually turns to pictures of ideas. His “pure reality” suddenly appears to be a reality of the mind, his inner view of reality.
After Mondrian this kind of introspective approach to art became at times strong in movements that were mostly psychological: from Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism to what we generally now call Conceptual Art. Don’t get me wrong, I still am very much fascinated by Mondrian’s work and introspective art has produced many fine works. At the same time I can’t help thinking that these art forms somehow encapsulate the anthropocene, the geological epoch of humans, and very much are part of the problem of anthropocentrism. And I, at least, think we have gone too far in this respect.
I think, it is time we were somewhat less excited about ourselves and try, again, to be more excited about the outside world. And personally, I admit, I start to get quite tired of the whole “pictures of ideas” thingy one especially sees in photography galleries a lot. Sorry.
At the same time, as I have laid out at some length in this series, the obsession with the human sphere has something ethically objectionable to it – because, in the end, it always sets us first and everything else second – and that is what brought us into trouble in the first place. The world, nature and creatures shouldn’t become mere props to express human ideas.
So what is then the way forward? As I admitted, the photographer is always part of the photograph – we can’t cut him/her out of the picture. Still, a practiced Ethics of Balance, would also in the creation of visual works at least try to keep a balance between the human sphere of the ideas and moods and the dignity of the subject.
Maybe, I come to think, it is really this idea of “dignity of all things” that could be the key here. If we can find and show dignity outside of the human sphere it might help us to understand (in mind and heart) the fundamental unity between ourselves and the world around us. Art doesn’t change the world. But art influences our understanding of the world – and if we decide to become citizens of the world I think there is still a lot we have to learn and understand.