Thinking About Photography: Is Beauty Enough?

Laurie says:

As folks who read the blog know, I’m taking this year to think about photography and the possibilities of what I’ll do next. Recently I was looking at the field of Forget-me-nots that I’ve cultivated in my garden. They are absolutely beautiful, and when I was looking at them they had no subtext, no complex meaning and only the context of the plum trees overhead. It was, and is, a totally satisfying aesthetic moment for me.

It started me thinking abut my work. Beauty has never been enough for me. In the almost 20 years I’ve been a photographer, all my work has been about beauty in composition and in subject. But it’s been mostly in a very strong social change context. And the projects have never been about the individual photos but always the entire project. I’ve almost never printed a photo that wasn’t part of a larger body of work.

I’ve shot a lot of landscapes over the first 10 years. They were simply beautiful, but the only ones that were printed and exhibited were collaborations with Ctein that had a significant context and meaning beyond the individual works.

It started on a photography trip.

“We got out of the car and both started focusing on the same distant mountains … from literally the same square meter of ground. We were in the middle of kilometers of flat plains, but we had to take turns occupying the spot we both wanted to photograph from … .

“That happened to us repeatedly, which is unusual, especially since we don’t “see” in remotely the same way. We have wholly distinct artistic visions, our printing styles are altogether different, and Ctein prefers medium-format color and Laurie 35mm B/W. Yet we find ourselves spontaneously drawn to the same subjects and vantage points.

“We were photographing in the Portland Rose Garden in 1990, doing this same tripping-over-each-other routine, when Laurie suggested it might be interesting to put our prints side-by-side and see if they said anything to each other. We tried it and have found that “interesting” is an extreme understatement. The resulting pieces really work! The combination of our pictures not only looks gorgeous, but makes some very powerful and rather profound comments on each of the individual prints and the subject. In particular, our photos strikingly deconstruct the semiotics of photography and each other: they make explicit all the usually-hidden, implicit choices a photographer makes in deciding how to photograph and print an image. The conjunction of our prints winds up having substantially deeper meaning than either of the works alone.” (The quotes are part of a longer essay on Ctein’s website. They also became a monograph book.)

Roses on Wall

This is the picture from the Portland rose garden. It was our first collaboration.

My individual black and white images where shot and printed thinking only about the aesthetics. It’s when the images are put together that the complexity of meanings happen. This is actually the closest I’ve ever gotten to working with beauty alone.

I think I need to do some work this year that will let me explore all of this further. Deliberately setting out to do individual prints that are about aesthetics alone. It’s not about where I end up but rather about changing how I see.