In a world of overwhelming data, powerful statistical tools, wonderous data visualization and an army of people generating words to precisely dissect any issue, why would anyone mess around with something as ambiguous and non-literal as a still photograph?
The answer is in the question. Some photographs – the ones we remember – give us something visceral at first look, but then complicate your life as you keep looking. In other words, there’s an ambiguity in photographs, a non-literalness, that keeps us on edge. That edge is where we learn about the world we look at. That goes for the photographer, too. Maybe especially for the photographer.
Let me tell you a story about a photograph I made as one of many visits over several years in the 1990s to the three-generation Richardson farm near New Madrid, Missouri. The picture is of Grethel “Mama Gert” Richardson sitting in her wheelchair in her kitchen while one of her granddaughters brushes her hair. It’s not a great photograph, but it had lessons for me. Mama Gert spent most of her time in her kitchen, leaving only when she wheeled herself into the adjacent living room to watch TV. In the words of her grandson Justin, “Mama Gert ran that farm from her kitchen. It was control central.” That kitchen was spectacularly orderly and worn. I brought my biases to that kitchen when I was photographing, worrying that a picture that showed the wear of that kitchen would embarrass Mama Gert. So I was a little apprehensive when I brought back to her, as I always did, 8 x 10 prints of the photos I had made during the previous visit. I worried that she would feel disrespected if I showed her worn kitchen.
In the stack of four or five dozen prints I brought to her on an especially hot summer day, she picked out this one as her favorite. I was surprised and asked her why.
“Because it is a picture of how we teach girls to be women,” she said.
That had not occurred to me. What did occur to me was that photographers are not as in control of their photographs as we like to believe. Clearly, I had photographed something I could not even see – until Mama Gert helped me see it.
We photograph to feel, express and learn, sometimes even in that order.