Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing and photography

I've been wanting to write more lately. It's not like I haven't been writing frequently; I have in fact been writing nearly constantly for the past five years. The only problem with that is the narrow scope of writing: user manuals, more manuals, literature reviews, a thesis, geologic reports, etc. I have, of course, had the pleasure of writing about philosophy now and then, but I have primarily written the aforementioned.

Needless to say, while I can and still will write technical user-centered material without much problem, I have grown weary of this; I have been writing too much of one thing. I'm thinking of writing reviews of things, but this is broad. Reviews of what? Tea? Beer? Music, new or old? The latest thing I read? Perhaps all of these. Regardless, you can expect more writing.

Briefly, here's a list of what I am/will be reading (and about which you can expect reviews):

  • How to Read a Photograph: Lessons from Master Photographers, by Jeffrey
  • The Texts of Taoism, published by Dover
  • Looking at Photographs, by Baldwin and Juergens
  • re-reading Also Sprach Zarathustra, by Nietzsche
  • re-reading Beowulf
  • The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed./trans. Mitchell

I may also re-read Candide and give The Silmarillion another shot. I hated it when I was 16.

So, to start, I will review/kvetch briefly on what I have read so far of Ian Jeffrey's How to Read a Photograph: Lessons from Master Photographers.

I am, perhaps inconveniently, half artist and half scientist, and have always loved photography and history. Photography and history compliment each other well; one of my favorite ways to learn about history is to (at least in a very small way) see it. Something I have always vehemently disliked are the droll and detached "this is how you take a photograph" sorts of books, as if photography is a static art. How silly! Those things in photos had a life in them, and thus should photography be treated: as a lively thing.

I was and am delighted to be gifted How to Read a Photograph: Lessons from Master Photographers, because it is a walk-through of the history of photography and the use of photographs from the ostensible perspective of the photographers. It's very interesting so far! A delightful way to learn various histories and why these photos were taken.

There is something however that frustrates me very much, something I've heard time and again from "art teachers" and authors: the incessant need to tack deep, profound meaning to everything. This is not to say that photographs (and art in general) have no meaning: you can't seriously look at art in general and think that. What bothers me is something slightly different; that is attaching meaning to something that may not have any meaning at all. For example:

William Henry Fox Talbot's photograph The Open Door is a photograph of just this, an open door, with various objects (a broom, harness, lamp) in the photograph. The book's author adds an extraordinary amount of meaning to the broom, harness and lamp, claiming them to reference The Sermon on the Mount (Light of the World), Diogenes the Cynic (lantern), the general principle of self control, and Jonathan Swift's A Meditation upon a Broomstick.

To this I say, seriously? Did the photographer really intend for these objects to carry these meanings? Or did he, perhaps, simply take a photograph of a normal scene? Historical meaning is one thing, and should be thought about and derived from photographs, but this sort of thing is another. It seems silly, and I wish people would stop attaching false meanings to things. 

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