Fire escape, shot on Ilford HP5 pushed to 1600, with a Zeiss Planar 45mm lens on a Contax G2
My photos fail to tell a story. I was talking to an NYU professor of photography, among other subjects, who is expert in teaching his students to tell a story. He allows them eight frames to do so. This fellow is so successful that some of his undergraduates have been hired by major media companies, straight out of college, to tell stories. It is a rare skill.
Chatting with him prompted me to consider whether I ought to give it a try. As a lawyer, and more generally an advocate for various causes, I long ago realized that stories are more compelling than facts, except to people who train themselves to be objective, and even they despite themselves likely will be influenced by the background narrative. In giving a speech, it is the anecdote that engages an audience, more than data whether recited or shown visually.
Photos are even more powerful. Thus the cliched formula of 1000 to 1, credited to newspaper editor Tess Flanders. People identify with other people. That is why we focus on the lone figure in the landscape. It is hardwired into us. They stand out against the vista.
The photos that we admire, most of the famous, iconic images, at least imply a story. They are about love, war, laughter, and suffering. They might not be clear. They may require our imagination to fill in.
Since Matthew Brady, whose Civil War battlefield images were the earliest photojournalism, continuing to the late Marie Colvin, who died under fire while covering contemporary combat, and beyond, heroes have sought to acquaint us with the brutal reality of military conflict. The Vietnam War produced shocking documentation that summarized complex stories even if taken from an invisible point of view. Public opinion on the home front turned on such indelible visuals as the execution in Saigon by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan of a Viet Cong sniper, Nguyen Van Lem, for which Eddie Adams won the 1969 Pulitzer. Defining and essential though it was, capturing the exact entry of the bullet into the head, Adams regretted it for the lack of context. As much as Lem might have been perceived as the victim, he was no innocent: he allegedly had assassinated one of Loan’s comrades, the man’s wife, and their children. General Loan retired to America, opening a restaurant in suburban Washington, D.C., always followed by the legacy of this single act.
Another was Napalm Girl, the title given the scene of children running, having been severely burned by the viscous incendiary, slightly to the left of center a naked, screaming Phan Thy Kim Phuc, for which Nick Ut won the 1973 Pulitzer. She survived and later defected to Canada. The domestic protest of the conflict was memorialized in the Kent State University massacre picture, featuring a teenage girl wailing over the body of one of four students shot by National Guard troops, for which John Filo won the 1970 Pulitzer. The widely published version was edited to remove a fence pole that appears to emerge from the woman’s head.
Peace has its own set of stories. Even a print that depicts nature, especially nature, is an account of how vast the world is, or how rapid or still the water is flowing, the change of seasons, or the effects of climate change. The penguin reminds us of us. The polar bear too.
We have to be able to impart meaning. It may be what we as a spectator bring. But it is there. Emptiness demands interpretation.
The photographer who has had the greatest effect on me is fictitious. In Three Days of the Condor, a paranoid thriller from the 1970s, Faye Dunaway plays Kathy. On the run and framed for a mass murder, Robert Redford, as a bookish intelligence analyst named Turner, takes her hostage. Given the genre, she has to fall for him, afflicted by Stockholm syndrome. She is a photographer whose walls are decorated by her own work: shots of Manhattan as winter is coming, literally and figuratively cold. They illustrate alienation.
I saw that movie on television when I was young. For whatever reason, as happens when you are a kid and impressionable, Dunaway’s style captivated me. Redford’s protagonist pauses to reflect on the black and white stills. He is perplexed by their ambiguous sentiment. I identified with the sense of isolation. Dunaway’s character was telling a story, not about her subject but about herself. The photographer was distant. She was an observer who was not a participant in the society surrounding her. That was not incidental. It explained her motivations in sympathizing with a fugitive.
My photos are about the technique. Some are abstractions. I am attracted to fire escapes, for example, because they display an intricate pattern of steps, typically contrasting with another intricate pattern of the building walls, or differing even further from a blank surface with subtle details. Or they cast shadows. That creates drama, a play of light and dark, even if it is of inanimate objects.
Some photos are portraits. They are close up mug shot style. They exhibit a modicum of emotion. But they are limited to a face staring out. There is no narrative.
I hesitate, however, to exploit the possibilities — or, more accurately, exploit the people around me — in street scenes. I work in a neighborhood that is not where tourists visit, the “Tenderloin,” in a city that is a most popular destination, San Francisco. There are many troubled souls around. There also are belligerent individuals. Some folks are both troubled and belligerent, depending on the stimuli and the circumstances. There is a high level of entrepreneurial activity that would not be considered quite legal. Probably the participants would prefer not to be recorded. That provides an abundance of stories to be told. There is the comic, the tragic, the strange, the maddening, and what defies categories. There is the ordinary and the unique, and those bits of reality that are sublime for being both mundane and special, the ephemeral that we try not only to preserve but also to present.
So I intend to assign myself a project. I will look for an appropriate opportunity. Some may just walk in front of me. Each of us must challenge ourselves to develop. That ultimately is the story of photography as it is of any art to be pursued.
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