Posts Tagged ‘Mirrors and Windows’

Calligraphy

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

A few weeks ago I read _Mirrors and Windows_, by John Szarkowski. (About whom we’ve [posted](http://one125.net/tagged/John+Szarkowski) once or twice before at _1/125_.) It’s pretty fantastic.

I’ve tried quite a few times since then to write a useful post about the subject, with little success; each draft tends to spiral out of control, until I feel like I’ve written myself into the middle of a book-length disquisition on the nature of photography. That’s an easy trap to fall into with Szarkowski, because he’s such a moving target; his writing is so rich with information, allusion, interpretation, and provocation that it is hard to keep attention focused on any one argument or claim.

So, I’m going to give up on trying to write one coherent post on the book tackling everything that really interests me (which would still have only touched on a fraction of everything contained in the brief essay in _Mirrors and Windows_) and write two or three shorter posts, instead.

Let’s start with this passage:

> During the first century of his existence, the professional photographer performed a role similar to that of the ancient scribe, who put in writing such messages and documents as the illiterate commoner and his often semiliterate ruler required. Where literacy became the rule, the scribe disappeared. By 1936, when Moholy-Nagy delcared that photography was the lingua franca of our time, and that the illiterate of the future would be he who could not use a camera, the role of the professional photographer was already greatly diminished from the days in which his craft was considered a skill close to magic. Today it is only in a few esoteric branches of scientific or technical work that a photographer can still claim mysterious secrets. (pp. 14-15)

This interests me because I think it helps me understand a confusion many photographers have regarding the nature of what they do.

Following the metaphor, let us assume that we are living in a time after that in which the scribe had a useful role — a time in which (in developed nations) everyone has the ability to read or write for themselves.

In that context, what do we make of someone apparently performing the functions of a scribe? Examples might include:

* Translators
* Editors, designers, etc.
* Paralegals
* Medical transcriptionists
* Notaries Public
* Calligraphers

These are people who have technical skills which are not required for the normal, everyday reading and writing functions routinely performed by people in both their business and personal lives.

There are photographic equivalents to many of these functions — or, rather, there are photographic professions which have a similar relationship to the photo-literate as these professions do to the word-literate. For example, I doubt one hears the complaint that, “with digital, everyone is a crime scene photographer.” (Note: If there are any forensics people reading and I’m getting that wrong, please let me know.)

However, most types of professional photography currently being done today are not so well sequestered from the realm of everyday, non-professional photography, which is usually (although not quite accurately) classified as “amateur.” But there may still be parallels.

Of these post-scribe forms of technical literacy, the last — calligraphy — is the one that I find to be the most interesting in relation to photography. For our purposes, let calligraphy be defined as the practice of making series of written letters appear aesthetically pleasing; it is (or at least, can be) totally agnostic with regard to the meaning of words represented by those letters. It is about making things pretty, on demand.

I think calligraphy is interesting in relation to what people want from photography. Specifically, to what they want _when they first become excited_ about photography — when they stop regarding it as a routine task requiring no special knowledge or insight and begin to regard it as something they can and should do well. Perhaps even as something which they are _called_ to do well.

When people today feel that way about the written word, virtually none of them say, “_I want to be a calligrapher_.” They want to be novelists, or poets, or journalists, or what have you. They want to write something in which other people can find meaning, amusement, excitement, solace, escapism, or insight.

But when people feel that way about photography, huge droves of them turn to the photographic equivalents of calligraphy — like wedding photography, commercial portraiture, stock photography, and advertising — disciplines which are, at heart, dedicated to producing prettiness on demand.

Budding photographers are often obsessed with becoming skilled in technical areas related to these disciplines, so that they can be more “pro” — which, amusingly, means that these industries are generally less and less sustainable for those who actually do set up shop in them. (And, as with calligraphy, hand knitting, and similar crafts, this tends to shift the area of commercial viability away from doing the work in question and towards books, supplies, workshops, instructional videos, etc.)

Of course, that does not sum up every budding photographer. There are plenty of photographers who are deeply embedded in the art world (which has largely swallowed up serious photography), and photojournalism is not dead. And I would not suggest that art photography and photojournalism are not worthwhile pursuits.

But is there a photographic equivalent of a novel, at this point, or of a short story? (Equivalent in _use_ I mean, not in structure, like the “literary” photographs of Frank Gohlke.) Is there photography which is produced for and consumed by the general public, for the joy of it?

That is more questionable.

Certainly there are people who are making photography that I would consider to be suitable for this role; there is good photography that exists outside the art niche and apart from the perversely utilitarian industries of prettiness on demand, and also apart from the civic-minded function of photojournalism and documentary photography.

But what is happening to that photography after it is made? Some percentage of it is published in various forms, and some percentage of what is published is bought (if applicable) and viewed, but the extent to which that happens outside the art community or the community of people who identify as photographers is more questionable.

And that — well, that worries me a great deal.