Do you want photographs to answer your questions or question your answers? Answering the questions will address who, what, where, and when and will invariably be tied to the object photographed.
You will know that you are looking at an egret, during its mating season, photographed on the shores of Rhode Island. Ergo, most of these photographs will be very similar, some may almost be identical. Replace “egret” with your choice of subjects to vary the example if you like.
Where Is That Woman? Questions your Answers!
If, on the other hand, after looking at a photograph, you keep wondering why that woman is sitting on the edge of the bed, how come there is only one set of tire tracks in the snow, who might the person in the coffee shop be, etc. you are looking at a photograph that keeps questioning your answers. Just as you think you found the answer, the photograph may present you with a new question, “whose foot is that?”
Through this kind of question-and-answer conversation with a photograph, a temporal pattern may emerge, and a sequence of events may start making sense. Some call this “narrative.” But since the narrator, the photographer is not with us to confirm, the best we can do is to attribute the reading to our efforts to complete the story. Now, the photographs question answers you may have.
This gives the photograph meaning, from our mental processes, rather than a narrative from the photographer’s perspective. There may even be some small or significant overlap between the two. That is exactly where communication, the commonness of the minds, might be established. I said in an earlier post on Narrative and Meaning in Photography:
I think of the narrative as a running stream of water. It has continuity and longevity. Photography, on the other hand, is like a leaf that I may pick up from the running stream, it has “disruption” and “shortevity” (obviously my term.) Narration runs, photography stops that, and steals a moment, like picking paint flakes from a wall.
This is what fine art photography is about, encoding a message, with intent, and letting the reader, the viewer, get the message hopefully as intended.
Crewdson Creates Photographs That Question You
One photographer, Gregory Crewdson, has mastered the fine art of producing “photographs that question.” Working with a large-format, 8″ x 10″ camera, a large crew, actors, sets, and even city blocks closed off, he creates moments of consciousness from a stream of time that he examines and compresses into a single frame. Ambiguous, transient, in-between, and being lifted from a river of time are all inherent in his photographs, which end up questioning your assumptions of the work.
The technical excellence is impeccable with exquisite lighting, directing, and acting that at once impress the viewer and quickly become transparent at the same time. Looking at his photograph, one does not wonder what f-stop he might have used, the appropriate one; how complex was the lighting, just complex enough; what post-processing techniques might have been used, whatever necessary. However, none of these draw the viewers’ attention to the technique and tools, as complex and elaborate as they might be, just pushing the photograph forward to ponder and enjoy.
Through your questioning and seeking answers, Crewdson shifts the burden of the narrative to the viewer, who in turn starts explaining what has been going on and what might continue. In fact, the photographer does not ascribe a strong sense of narrative to his photographs but a quality not too unlike a Rorschach test. Viewers can project themselves into the director’s chair and start telling the story. Of course, many viewers will create many different stories. This interaction makes the photographs even more interesting. They are also gorgeous objects in and of themselves. To me is where photography really happens.
All these combine to create highly memorable photographs that keep questioning. Through that questioning, if you are the curious type, you engage with his work at a significant depth. Or, refuse to do so because the photograph did not answer any questions for you. It might be your loss! You may consider going back to that photograph and sitting down with a cup of coffee. This conversation may be very interesting. I have several of his books, all excellent reads and highly evocative photographs that never fail to engage me. I am inviting you to experience his photographs. Each one is like a leaf picked up from a stream, a stream of time.
Currently on exhibit, Cathedral of the Pines, at Gagosian Gallery
Interview with Photographer Gregory Crewdson, The American Reader