Monday, October 13, 2008

Icons and Idols

There are times when I take pictures for no other reason than that I feel compelled to do so, as if the act of making photographs is an obligation of some higher calling. It should be stated that I am not in the employ of some media agency as a professional “hired gun”; I consider myself, from a technical perspective, to be an enthusiast hobbyist. That having been said, I do possess some degree of technical proficiency equivalent to that of a working professional photographer. I choose consciously, however, to remain an enthusiast amateur.

Amateur. The term brings to mind a class of people less than fully sophisticated or highly capable. “He’s just an amateur,” we would say; or “that was rather amateurish on his part.” It brings to mind the ham-handed antics of someone less than reasonably capable of tying one’s boot strings without botching the job. Like many words of English, the term “amateur” derives from Latin, in this case the word “amor”, to love. A true amateur is an enthusiastic lover. The professional may also be an amateur – a lover of – his chosen profession; or he may be a mere hired gun, doing the work for pay and nothing more.

So, why as an amateur do I “do the work,” one might inquire? What specifically would motivate a person to fanatically pursue a creative outlet, such as photography, when money is not the primary motivator? Can a person pursue such a line of creative endeavor for the love of it alone? Love doesn’t always remain the same. Interests come and go, flag and wane. Life gets in the way; priorities, and one’s physical living circumstances, may conspire to prevent the pursuit of one’s yearnings.

Ultimately, there has to be some deeper motivation for pursuing a creative outlet, one that has to be able to withstand the distractions and confusing priorities of real life. We might call this deeper motivation, this hidden calling, a spiritual pursuit. Perhaps “mystical” is a better term, for often this inner yearning has attached to it no specific ideology or philosophy.

The mysticism surrounding photography that particularly interests me pertains to the idea that photography is an act of image making, and image making has associated with it a plethora of cultural baggage that relate to the spirituality of the icon of medieval Christendom, along with the paganism of the graven image. The photographic image simultaneously venerates and idolizes, as if it cannot decide between the two. This is so obvious to the student of portrait photography that stating so becomes redundant; the classic examples from the history of portraiture maintain a power and presence that defy complete understanding, precisely because of this ambiguity between iconography and idolatry. We sense within the visage of the subject both the sensuous, carnal qualities of their physical presence, along with some deeper, spiritual quality less well defined but more deeply felt. There remains a permanent conflict between these two aspects, a yin and yang, which refuse to disperse regardless of the style or technical merit of the photograph, or extent of photographic criticism, or stature and reputation of the photographer.

The photograph, once completed, maintains a life of its own; it refuses to remain under complete subjugation to its creator’s will. This, too, is an artifact of the photo’s icon/idol duality; those photographers most successful maintain an understanding of these contradictory dualities, able to tame the photo’s mystical qualities for their own selfish reasons – ego, artifice, profit – while simultaneously permitting their intangible aspects to remain as a witness to the intrinsic power of the medium. The success of this endeavor is precisely aligned to the demonstrated ability of the photographer to walk the razor-thin line between the medium’s dual aspects of idealization and idolization. To stray from this path is to fall into the mire of cliché and pop-culture superficiality on the one hand, or to fall into the abyss of the pornographic on the other.

Photography, at its best, maintains the interest of our common gaze precisely because its dual nature mimics the structure of the human condition, whereby we are found to be ephemeral spiritual beings captured within the prison shells of corruptible carnality. We maintain this position like that of fallen angels, halfway between perfection and perdition, exhibiting a complex blend of both. The photographic image thereby functions as a mirror upon the human condition; at its best it is able to reflect an uncanny resemblance to that inner turmoil which resonates within the heart of man, which is why such images continue to intrigue and fascinate us, despite our mutual inundation within a cauldron of popular culture and mass media.

It is for these reasons that I continue to create photographic images, aside from the social obligations of the snapshot or wedding event. To Garry Winogrand this motivation had to do with “seeing what things looked like when photographed”; the photo had little or nothing to do with the objects depicted; the photographic image retained an intrinsic quality entirely separate from the tangible reality from whence it was extracted. For myself, the photograph remains mystical and mysterious; despite its superficial resemblance to objective reality – perhaps because of it – photographs are less and more: less about the objects depicted and more about the power of the icon and idol.