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A Conversation about Flags

A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion about some of my work with a professional photographer and very experienced and knowledgeable printer whom I’ll refer to as “V.” The discussion was regarding a series I’ve been working on of infrared photographs of US and California flags.

V wasn’t very impressed with the work, which is not in itself necessarily interesting. After all, not all work will be to everyone’s taste, and of course not everything I produce is solid gold — far from it. But I found some of the particulars interesting:

He ranked the photographs in order from best or most interesting to worst or least interesting; this ranking was _exactly_ opposite the ranking I would apply to the same photographs. This is a pretty awesome response, because it shows that what interests me in the photographs, the direction I want to take them, corresponds to something that isn’t just in my head — even if it isn’t necessarily something that’s crowd-pleasing.

Another interesting divergence is this photograph, which V referred to as a “snapshot”:

I say this is interesting because, out of the entire series, this is the one photograph which I would say is least like a snapshot. All the others actually do have snapshot qualities — some are snapped on the fly, many are made with little to no active attempts at “good” composition, etc. I think in this case, and in many cases, “snapshot” really just means, “photograph I don’t like but I’m not sure why.” (Alternate usage: “photograph I like but don’t want to acknowledge as a good photograph.”)

V gravitated toward photographs which had what he referred to as “human interest” — the photographs I included which are more street-oriented or psuedo-documentary. His specific advice as regards the prints themselves tended to go towards making the flags more visible and identifiable as flags, and to recovering lost detail in the flag markings.

I explained that this was basically directly contrary to my intentions. What drew me to this subject is the way infrared photography effaces the markings of flags and frees them (albeit temporarily, partially) from their habitual symbolic uses. So, the tendency of the flags’ markings to wash out is essential, whereas the “human interest” content is secondary — used to give a context for the portrayal of the flags themselves.

I don’t think this clicked solidly for V, because he tended to keep hitting these points as the discussion went on, regardless. He also characterized my explanation of the project as “symbolic,” which is sort of, but not really, in the right neighborhood. What I’m interested in is the way photography can, without physically changing an object, remove or suspend its symbolic value. I tried to convey that, with mixed success; after that he started calling it “non-symbolic symbolism.” Not really an improvement.

The funny thing is, I found this whole conversation to be not only entertaining and engaging, but also strangely comforting. I’ve never felt so good about being poorly or incompletely understood.

Of course, this is not to say that we should always celebrate when people don’t like our work, or when people don’t “get” our work. I’m not interested in producing work for an elite audience, however defined. But I am pleased to have elicited a strong response which is more than casually related to what I intend for this project, and I am pleased at having been able to articulate most of those intentions in discussion to my own satisfaction.

As to the project itself, I need to continue to produce work for it and to work on refining the sequencing. The balance and relationship between the more “documentary” photographs and the more (for want of a better word) “abstract ones needs to be improved; in its current form, the ambiguity regarding that relationship weakens the sequence, because it seems like two sequences that have merely been interleaved. If I can fix that, it will hopefully provide a better stepping-off point for viewers and make it easier for them to see along with me…

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