What We Talk about When We Talk about Photography | Aveek Sen | Wednesday, 29.02.2012

Photography – A Promiscuous Life

What we talk about when we talk about photography. This phrase had been going around in my head as I thought about this blog in the last few days. It can’t be an accident that the phrase echoes the title of Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, about two couples discussing love as they sit around a kitchen-table drinking gin while the afternoon light slants across the room. The phrase seems to imply that photography, like love, is one of those irrepressibly miscellaneous topics of conversation that can’t help opening up, in a rather unruly way, into other topics even as one tries to discipline one’s thoughts into some sort of purity and rigour.It is as if one can only talk about photography by talking about other things, as if any proper conversation about photography is necessarily an improper one. And what if one moves from talking to doing, from discourse to practice? Can there be a way of doing (and not just thinking about) photography that is less about photography per se than about aspiring to the conditions of other modes of representation, imagination and experience well beyond its conventional limits? Historically and in its essential nature, isn’t photography – the word yoked to writing at its root – suited to this alluring, though often discomfiting, openness more than any other medium? And what is this openness but an engagement with the fluidity and accidents of life itself, the outer as well as the inner life?

Yet, paradoxically, in spite of this openness, photography often leaves one with the sense of a dead end, an impasse. This happens at two levels. First, a photograph is always a photograph of something ‘out there’. Hence, its relationship with the world is, at its core, a closed circuit (although it is precisely this deadlock with the real and the material that could give the photograph its mysterious or heroic quality). Second, photography is now perhaps the one truly democratic medium: mastering its rudiments is like learning to speak, write or use a phone. As the Pet Shop Boys sing in “Rent”, “It’s easy, it’s so easy.”

So, when a young photographer, all fired up after buying his first expensive camera, asks to borrow my copy of The Europeans or The Americans, I give him, together with these invaluable photobooks, John Szarkowski’s 1962 lecture to teachers of photography. According to Szarkowski, the best teachers of photography are those who were committed to an openness that leads their students out of, and ultimately beyond, photography. They give their students what are ostensibly escape routes to other things. And these routes, seeming to lead away from photography, eventually become the paths for returning to it. For Szarkowski, photography becomes one of the arts, like literature, painting and music, only when it stops obsessing over its own history and theory – when its mirrors become windows, as much to the world as into the soul. To break out of its documentary cage, photography must risk a kind of intellectual and existential promiscuity, an all-absorbing hunger that is at once outwardly directed and inwardly trained. It must learn to look, as William Blake had put it (well before photography was invented), not only “with”, but also “through”, the eyes.

This is how photography can hold on to its self-reflexivity without turning it into a narcissism that fails to discover anything beyond itself. “I think this nourishment, this new blood that allows any creative field to become something new and something richer must come from outside of the medium,” Szarkowski elaborates, “an art medium is not like the snake with its tail in its mouth. We cannot expect to find all of the nourishment that we need within the works of the tradition.” This vitality must come from outside postmodernism’s hall of mirrors, from “the business of probing and exploring life, including all those intuitively sensed realities for which we have not yet found formal expression”. This is why photographers must commit themselves to “ideas from life...that do not yet have a form”. The consequences of such a commitment could be nothing less than revolutionary, and Szarkowski knows how radical a challenge to, and claim for, photography he is making here: “Revolutions in art come from concerns that are outside and beyond art” (cf. John Szarkowski, “Commitment” (1962) in The Education of a Photographer).

For photographers, and equally for writers on photography, what Szarkowski opens up here is the question of ‘reference’, in the widest sense of the word. A photograph is the depiction of a relationship with reality in a much more necessary way than a poem or sonata is. So how can photography be sustained by this inescapable connection with reality and yet free itself from the tyranny of this connection, from what Samuel Taylor Coleridge had called “the despotism of the eye”? Photography must create its own access to a whole universe of reference – allusions, echoes, resonances and reflections – drawn from the myriad worlds of the other arts, determined by the peculiar character of the individual photographer’s inner life and circumstances. Together they constitute the photographer’s “inner darkroom”, in which, according to Marcel Proust, the ghosts and shadows of his art develop into more substantial and enduring, but no less mysterious, creatures. In this chamber of creation, the reality that photography must refer to is an amalgam of art, life and inwardness in which each element dissolves into and enriches the others. This is why photography is never enough for photographers – it is merely the place where all the ladders start.

The word, promiscuous, combines the Latin pro or forward and miscere, to mix. So, the promiscuous moves forward through indiscriminate mixing – a tendency that had to wait for the Victorians to become a sin. In my explorations, for this blog, of the map of photography’s creative and intellectual promiscuity (to me, an entirely fortunate fall), I will range across literature, music, cinema, the internet and social networking sites, and everyday experience and perceptions to open up ways of thinking about theories as well as practices of photography as irredeemably mixed up and unruly, difficult to pin down to one discipline, one kind of discourse or perception. This, I hope, will take us well beyond the Benjamin-Barthes-Sontag trinity, blurring the lines not only between photography and the other arts, but also, crucially, between theory and creative practice. So, Proust and Derrida, or Wallace Stevens and Tarkovsky are equally the providers of ideas or approaches as well as creative practitioners who help us make, look at, curate, hang, sequence, edit, write or think about photography in all its diverse forms.

Photography’s haunted house must also be a house of ill repute, for in that house of shifting forms and values, the uncanny and the promiscuous stalk each other. That is why, in the next few weeks, we might try to think of photography as the handmaiden of both love and death, fantasy and fear, desire and grief, substance and shadow.