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Thinking About Photography – The Colors And Beauty In Artistic Expressions

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We leaf through photographs in a magazine, an old album or on our cellphones, taking them for granted in a way. It is like language; we speak without being conscious of the act. Photographs too, have become second nature to our reality. They are everywhere. However, isolated and put to the scrutiny, what is the nature of a photograph? How have poets and thinkers thought about this form of art and/or communication across time? If we suddenly were to become critically conscious of its existence, what sort of thoughts would be on our minds? Let’s try to look at some of these questions and see what kind of answers we find.

Through the Lens of Poems

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,

my home a neat four by six inches…

This is home. And this the closest

I’ll ever be to home. When I return,

the colors won’t be so brilliant,

the Jhelum’s waters so clean,

so ultramarine. My love

so overexposed.

Postcard from Kashmir, by Agha Shahid Ali

The poem, Postcard from Kashmir captures the conquering quality of an image that replaces the actual presence of Kashmir. The concrete physicality of the postcard is tangible in the way even vivid memories are not. In this way, the photograph becomes an emblem of that which survives time, ruin and the past. This is a melancholic relationship with the image for the speaker of the poem. He cannot ‘have’ it and yet he can ‘see’ it.

The eerie connotation is that the image is representative of a time that no longer exists, thus it is the only ‘proof’ that such a Kashmir once existed. For if and when he returns, the speaker suggests that “the colors won’t be so brilliant, / the Jhelum’s waters so clean, so ultramarine.” Also, the mystery of an image is such that it can ‘overexpose’ our feelings. As the speaker of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem puts it: “My love so overexposed.” This is, of course, an interior labyrinth of feelings that exist in correlation to the actuality of the postcard image.

The eye for detail is another quality in the realism of the photograph. Jill Kelly, educator and critic, writes that “recording…observation…factual evidence – these (are) obvious traits of the camera.” Margaret Atwood, in her poem This is a Photograph of Me, subtly plays with these qualities of a photograph and poses a question that that though it is ultra realistic, is there still something below the surface that even the all-seeing camera cannot capture?

“I am in the lake, in the center

of the picture, just under the surface.”

This reflection in Atwood’s poem brings us to the metaphoric realization that the psychological and emotional perhaps cannot be accurately captured by the art of photography. Further, in the image referred to in the poem, even the physical form of the dead woman cannot be found in the given, relevant details. This is because of the time difference:

“The photograph was taken

the day after I drowned.”

Philip Larkins, in Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album laments about the nature of the caught and preserved image: “a past that no one now can share.” Photography does seem to have a strange relationship with the passing of time – as it does not age whereas the past keeps receding as the waves back into the grand sea.

Challenging Art

Jon Anderson, in his course on Contemporary Art Trends conveys how art suffered an identity crisis after the advent of photography that it never has quite recovered from. The precision and concreteness of photography overtook the perceptive depictions in art of landscapes, portraits and still life. As a result, art sought to find its bearing in more abstract forms of expression.

Invented in 1839, photography took the world by storm and eminent writers such as Edgar Allen described it as “the most important and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science.” However, for the artists, it was a sensitive issue and posed a peculiar challenge. Baudelaire called photography “art’s most mortal enemy” and maintained that it was in fact, an ‘invasion.’

From the ‘image’ being strictly the artist’s domain, photography does seem like an ‘invasion’ as the image could eventually be mass-produced and belong to anyone. Indeed, there was an immediacy in photography that was attractive and boldly contrasted with the idea of an artist making a portrait over several sittings. It also signified a change in life-style, and whereas the business of portraiture was somewhat limited to the upper-class before who had the time and luxury to pursue such an undertaking, now it was a click away, and was accessible to all social classes.

In today’s age, there is a camera feature on almost everyone’s cell-phone. Pictures have become part and parcel of lifestyle. The rarity and newness of the ‘photograph’ as it engulfed the world, and particularly affected the art world, is now long over. It is in fact, the photographers who are now in trouble, as they find competition on every street corner.

What is a Photograph?

In her essay collection, On Photography, Susan Sontag declares that “surrealism lies at the very heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree.” So what is exactly a photograph? Yes, it is a double life, an exacting mirror, a surreal encounter with self and other caught in a frozen second. Come to think of it, the easy access of it, doesn’t rob photography of an essentially mysterious quality.

Sontag states that photography is “essentially an act of non-intervention.” No matter how intimate the setting or how personal it may appear to be, the photographer is always at a distance. By the very form of it, the camera endows a seemingly objective angle to every occurrence.

In Migrant Mother, a 1936 photograph by Dorothea Lange covering the Great Depression, we are as if experiencing the gaze of the mother affected by the ravages of time, however, it is really under the apparently ‘objective’ gaze of the photographer that our insights are being shaped. We are looking at the subject but feel at once the experience of being her. In this way, subjectivity is showcased in a unique sort of way.

It is an act of non-intervention, and yet Sontag also points out that there is something rather ‘predatory’ about it as well. She suggests that the language associated with the act of using a camera, include ‘loading’ and ‘aiming’ and reminds one of the terminology associated with guns. So it seems the captured image is stylized and sophisticated ‘murder’ of time, moment and action by a rather obsessive eye.

Sontag further says that “Photographs and images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.” Perhaps when we hold a photograph in our hands, as an object that can be touched and owned, it immerses itself in our world. It becomes part of our collections. Also, as the photograph captures lived experience, it becomes intrinsic and invisibly present in our memories, even shaping them. Then there is the ability of the photograph to look into the very “life of things” – the mountains as they are, the flower with its insides exposed, the beetle about to move.

A photograph struggles between the two disciplines of “beautification, which comes from the fine arts and truth telling” (Sontag) which comes from journalism. This is a very delicate and challenging difference for the first category may enhance one’s sense of appreciation and wonder as in art photography pieces such as Man Ray’s work, but it is the second category which is exacting to the realist detail such as the work of photojournalists like Dorothea Lange.

To conclude, photography does come with its inherent limitations – it cannot capture the psychological or spiritual as literature can. However, this does not take away from the seemingly miraculous quality of the advent of photography, and it in very real ways posed challenges to the field of art and influenced realist literature as well. To indulge in the discussion of photography and its relationship to literature and art, we find ourselves thinking about what exactly a photograph is. A seemingly all-seeing, even murderous eye that makes us rethink of what constitutes a mirror and how our ‘double life’ seems to be captured in these square shaped objects.

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Naya Daur