I made a presentation to a small group of friends related to the art of photography. The presentation mostly focused on the introductory text from John Szarkowsky’s “The Photographer’s Eye”. During the presentation at some point I made a statement to the effect that “photography does not have narrative” ability which was questioned by several members. Although we spoke about it for a short while, the question lingered in my mind, prompting me to attempt to articulate my thoughts in this entry.
The dictionary entry for “narrative” in the American Heritage Dictionary is:
- A narrated account; a story.
- The art, technique, or process of narrating.
Now, here begins the confusion I think. When we look at a photograph we see an object, the photograph, begging to be perceived. Perception being an organized process, we attempt to relate various components in the photograph to each other as it makes sense to us. This is necessary to perceive the image contained in the photograph, as well as any input we may receive by our senses. This organization process may result in a long explanation of who is looking where, why, and what else is being affected by the other elements, and so on. This “telling” of what we perceive must not be confused with narrating a story with a photograph.
Narrative, telling of a series of events, people, places, objects, and relationships among them, starting at some arbitrary point in time and ending at another typically requires the use of a medium that can inherently span passage of time, in a meaningful way. Written words or cinematic presentations are probably the strongest candidates for this. Photography, although it may cover some passage of time, is typically about a time frame of seconds and fractions of a second. And because of this extremely short period of time, can only tell of a part of the world during a fraction of a second where the “story” had been unfolding until the photographer decided to click the shutter and continued after the picture was captured. What the photographer wanted to say can only be transmitted for an expected meaning. If the photographer wanted to tell a story, he or she needs to go beyond meaning and maintain a continuity of a series of “meanings.”
This brings us to the meaning of “meaning”. Again, the American Heritage Dictionary tells us:
- Something that is conveyed or signified; sense or significance
- Something that one wishes to convey, especially by language
- An interpreted goal, intent, or end
- Inner significance
If I want to share the beauty or the fragrance of a rose, I can show it to you and we share a common understanding of that plant and some of its attributes. It is not too difficult to bring a rose to show anyone. But, what if I wanted to share the enormous size of an elephant, its skin texture, etc.? Well, as awkward as it may be, we can go to a zoo to see and touch an elephant, again to establish a commonness of our minds. As you can imagine, this process of object-oriented communication of meaning becomes quickly cumbersome. Then, we resort to using pictures (icons of things), and words (symbols of things). So, if I want to convey the idea of an elephant (as I just have done) I write “e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t” and show it to you. But, what if you do not speak English? Obviously, I have encoded what is in my mind into that symbol that we call a word. But, in order for it to have “meaning” it needs to trigger the idea of the animal we call “elephant” in your mind. It should be easy to infer from here that the “meaning” is not in the word but in the mind of the receiver, the “meaning” belongs to the receiver. There are many things in the world, say an aardvark or Zinga, that we think we know what they are. We have seen pictures of that thing, we have read about that thing, but until we actually see the real thing all we can attribute as a meaning is what we have as a virtual understanding of that thing. The real understanding of the object can only happen after seeing the thing itself. (This is something photography inherently does. I may try to say a few things about that in a different entry.)
The fact that we ascribe a “meaning” to a photograph and that meaning requiring a long paragraph does not imply that we have “narrated” what the photographer intended. Narrative reflects the mind of the teller, can change according to the teller’s wish, and belongs to the teller. The photographer, as the teller of a story or giving an account of an event, may try very hard, but the medium does not afford that continuity, that longer time reference to succeed in narrating. This does not mean that the photograph will be devoid of meaning, it will simply not narrate a longer story.
I liken the narrative to 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. That piece of paint flake, that photograph, may very well trigger a multitude of meanings in the minds of many viewers. After all, the meaning belongs to them. The photograph may merely act as a reflector of their own thoughts.