Monday, September 29, 2008

Three Dimensions of Photography

A recent article by Christopher Hitchens for Vanity Fair, commemorating the culture magazine's 25th anniversary since its relaunch in 1983 narrates the story behind the famous photographs which have graced the magazine pages over the years. The author writes, during the course of the essay

"To have once or twice worked with photographers like James Nachtwey is to have appreciated the way in which - contrary to a once cherished belief of mine - the photographic image can possess a moral weight greater than words"

Photography to me, is an exalted art form. Never in the past four thousand years of human existence had an art form come close to the pinnacles which photography has reached in the past two centuries. Photographs as chronicles of our times are a medium par excellence. Great photographs over time have captured in mind blowing detail every aspect of our lives - from daily mundane activities to avant-garde expressions of human exisitence. But the beauty of photography also lies in the abstraction they so easily impress upon their viewers. Literature poses a level of abstraction which is presented in the tone and style of the writer's language. Painting delves into a level of abstraction which is presented through the palette of the painter, sculpture in the chisel of the sculptor. These art forms are essentially two dimensional. They are either seen from the perspective of the writer, the painter, the sculptor or through the perspective of the reader and viewer. The characters of literature are moulded by the style of the writer. The painter's brushstrokes paint the emotion of the subject and the sculptor's chisel shapes the subjects form. It is only photography which allows for three dimensions in perspective - that of the photographer, that of the viewer or audience and that of the subject which is being captured.

It is true that the influence of the photographer on the subject is critical and the photograph may be in essence what the photographer 'intends' it to be. But essentially, photographs are capsules of time and essence which necessarily include in them an additional variable - the implicit nature of the subject. Be it a 'capture' of an animate character in a portrait or a 'capture' of an inanimate object like a building, the very nature of the subject is never lost in the photograph. It remains despite all external perceptions, all superimpositions it is subject to - it remains in the texture, it remains in the film grain and it remains in the exposure.

From my collection - August 2008

The story of a photograph can be told through three distinct narrations. One is the story of the photographer, who through the camera in his hand tries to capture for posterity what his eyes see. He considers the camera to be an extension of his sight, hopefully invisible to others. He hopes the photograph to be an extension of his thought, made visible outside his mind. The second story is that of the viewer. He considers the visual stimuli of the photograph and tries to fathom the meaning of the frame of time. He considers the opinion of what has been captured by the extended sight of the photographer. He tries to understand the nature of the subject. The thrid story is that of the subject - who may never see the photograph or might not have the capability of sight itself, but nevertheless has a story to tell which is expressed in the way the subject is captured at that moment in time.

I was once asked to come up with a quotation to describe photography, to put down in words what a photograph stands for. After much deliberation and thought I came up with the following-

"Look into my eyes, you may know what I see; Look at my photograph, you may know what I think!"

I won much praise for this. But I still believe that, just like prose is two dimensional in the way it can be understood, explaining what a photograph is - in prose is two dimensional and therefore incomplete. Hence even this essay here is also incomplete.

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