Not so long ago, a photographer wrote to me, taking issue with my essay entitled The case for the negative in which I used one of my own photographs to illustrate the point I was trying to make. Her criticism was based on the premise that a good photograph speaks for itself; and her complaint was that my essay was no more than a cynical attempt to “market” a photograph that was unable to speak for itself and was therefore, by her definition, not good.
The purpose of my writing this is not to defend or justify my essay or my photograph. But rather, I was intrigued by her premise and I wanted to explore that further with a broader community. Is a photograph that requires explanation necessarily a failure?
In “The case for the negative”, I argued that our perception of an image is a composite of what the photographer provided, in terms of form and content, and what we, ourselves, bring to the interpretation in terms of our knowledge and experience. But having said that, I personally find it interesting to know how the photographer came to take that particular image and to portray it in that particular way. And I think it is important to recognise here the difference between academic and aesthetic interest. As a student of photography, I take academic interest in the processes another photographer uses to take a photograph; particularly one that I find appealing. But as a consumer of photography, I have an aesthetic interest particularly in those images that I feel are good but am not quite sure why; and I feel that if I could get inside the mind of the photographer, my own capacity to understand his or her work would expand and I would be the richer for it. So, I personally, am far from outraged when a photograph is explained, either by the photographer or by someone else whose superior knowledge and understanding can inform mine.
Let me tell you about an experience I had recently that might illustrate the issue as I see it.
Trent Parke is one of Australia’s leading contemporary photographers. He is the only Australian photographer who is a member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency; and his work is promoted in Sydney through the Stills Gallery, one of the city’s leading spaces dedicated to contemporary photography.
I went along to the gallery in November 2010 to see a new exhibition that took the form of a compilation of work of various photographers represented by Stills including Trent Parke, Narelle Autio, Mark Kimber, Polixeni Papapetrou and William Yang. Images from Parke’s Christmas Tree Bucket series were complimented by a sample from his new Black Rose project. The Christmas Tree Bucket series comprises a portfolio depicting the detritus of a suburban home during the Christmas period, including a shot of Frankfurt sausages boiling in a pot on a stove which is identical to the one my mother had (pictured above). As an historical document depicting a particular culture in place and time, the images have a certain fascination; but I’m not sure that I’d hang any of them on my wall at home. On the other hand, I’d love to have the opportunity to discuss them with their author one day over a cup of coffee, just to find out what was going through his mind as he compiled the series.
The four images from The Black Rose project presented a different challenge; and here I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to discuss them with one of the gallery staff, a young woman who was generous with her time but impressed me even more with her candour and preparedness to share inside knowledge with me.
I don’t want to discuss each of the images in detail here because I don’t have permission to reproduce them and I feel that I might do them injustice by trying to describe them. But for the purposes of this article, let me say that I found two of them quite easy to understand; a third I interpreted in a way that proved to be very wide of the mark; and the final one, I looked at for a long time, I turned my head one way and another, I moved closer and then further away, and I still couldn’t understand what it was meant to be; and moreover, I wondered what on earth had possessed a photographer of Parke’s calibre to take such an image let alone put it on public display as a representation of his work. But this was where the information provided by the gallery staffer became invaluable.
I don’t want to prejudice you by spilling the beans about these images. Perhaps, if you get to see them, you will have better luck in understanding them than I did and I don’t want to spoil that pleasure for you. But my guide gave me an insight, a critical piece of background information, that suddenly put the series into a new light for me; and I actually doubt that anyone could have inferred that insight from the images alone. Instead of leaving the gallery perplexed, I left there feeling enriched, and profoundly touched both by the images themselves and by the intent behind them. Perhaps even more so because the event that triggered the series was similar to one I too had experienced recently and to which I could deeply relate.
So, my point is that, if Trent Parke, with his experience and credentials, can create and exhibit images that are so deeply personal that they require inside knowledge to be fully understood and appreciated, then surely the premise that a photograph must speak for itself, or be dismissed as inferior, is disputable.
For me, as a student of photography, understanding why a photograph was taken, what it represents and how its physical form connects with the photographer’s psyche is part of the learning process. Many photographs do speak for themselves and can be immediately understood and appreciated by a broad section of the community without explanation; but there are a number of photographers in my contact list on Flickr whose work challenges me on a regular basis; and whilst I admit that I like some of their images more than others, I never dismiss a piece simply because I’ve failed to understand it. On the contrary, those are the pieces that I’d love to discuss with their author; because those are the pieces I feel I could learn most from. But on the other side of the coin, when one of my own images fails to provoke the response on Flickr I expected it to, I see no reason why I should not ask what I did wrong, or what I might have done better. That too is part of the learning process.
So, what do you think? Should we shove our images out of the nest to fend for themselves? Should we only exhibit images that are capable of arguing their own case? Or is it okay to share more than just the images themselves on Flickr. I’d love to hear your opinion on this subject; and I won’t hold it against you if you use one of your own images as an example to make your case.
 If you happen to visit Sydney and are interested in contemporary photography I strongly recommend you visit the Stills Gallery; but equally strongly advise you to bring a map because it literally goes out of its way to avoid discovery.