Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Good Shot

I've been playing basketball with a very interesting group of guys most Friday nights at a local Catholic school. We usually don't get done till after 11 and afterwards, a few of us go to a bar close by to complain about our aches and pains and enjoy the sunset of our athletic careers (needless to say, both "athletic" and "careers" need scare quotes there).

This bar happens to be next door to a run down old roadside motel called the Boundary and when we pulled up the first time, I told Jon, who is kind enough to give me a ride to and from these games, that I'd love to take a picture of the road sign for the hotel. He expressed great surprise and asked me why. To him, it looked like one of a countless number of motel signs not worthy of a second look much less a photo. To me, though, I had a knee-jerk reaction to capture it with my camera. At the time, I couldn't articulate to him why I wanted to take the picture; I just knew that it interested me. Jon got me thinking about a lot of things though and this post is a delayed answer to his question.

First, let's get a look at what inspired all this:

The Boundary

I finally remembered my camera one Friday and this is the shot I got. I'm not entirely happy with it. Night photography has never been a strength of mine and it was after 1am, about 20 degrees outside, and I was in sweaty basketball clothes, so I didn't spend as much time on getting it perfect as I would've liked, but I still find the image very compelling. The real question, though, is why?

I can certainly read the photo as it exists now and try to reverse engineer the process that led to my concluding this was a good subject. The worn texture and general shabbiness of the sign contradicts the promise of comfort and class promised by cable TV and HBO. Think about this hotel, probably opened in post-World War II America where travel and mobility promised romance and adventure on the road whereas the state of the sign and hotel generally as it is today suggest that it is only used for romance of a more carnal nature. Such Americana always draws my eye and certainly fits in with my interest in engaging with mundane objects that normally escape our attention as my artistic statement tries to explain.

However, that doesn't really answer the question or at least it only does so to raise another question. I certainly don't take pictures of *all* mundane things. I still have some kind of filter in place that helps me decide what I to photograph. Why this sign and not the last 100 motel signs I'd seen?

The question finally boils down to this: What makes a good shot? There are certainly rules that most people agree about in terms of composition such as the rule of thirds and questions of sharp focus, but there are as many exceptions to the rules and reasons to break them as there are rules. Plus, these are rules for what makes a good photo not a good subject for a photo, so Jon's question is still unanswered.

I want to say that, ultimately, what makes a good subject is a personal choice of the artist that can't be explained rationally. The reaction is the result of a gestalt of as many things as go into creating the individual's personality itself. Maybe it's one of the things that marks the artist as "artistic," this ability to hone in on what has potential artistic merit as a subject. The success of that artist would then be how many other people also respond on some level to the subjects s/he focuses on. Other people weren't attuned to the potential artistic worth of the subject until the artist "distilled" it into a work of art.

In this scenario, the artist him or herself doesn't have to be consciously aware of what specific elements go into drawing the artist to the potential subject. The draw, the unconscious pull, is enough. Let me give you another example. Here is a photo I took on my recent return to Charleston, WV:

Take a Number

It's a picture of the shelves at a local shoe repair shop. When I went in with my camera equipment, the workers were already giving me the fisheye and when I asked if I could take a picture of their repair shelves, they rolled their eyes, looked at each other and said "Knock yourself out." To them, it was only their workplace. Nothing but a place for them to practice their craft. What could I possibly find there of aesthetic value. They didn't come out and ask me the question, but it was there in their eyes. I don't know that I would've had any more of a satisfactory answer for them than I did for Jon. I was moved by the repetition of the bright yellow tags and big, bold black numbers. The way the bags are all shelved in a row, some straight and some askew suggest a real tension between organization and chaos, the age-old battle between entropy and enthalpy.

Pretty highbrow stuff for repaired shoes on old shelves, but if I look at the image now, read it as if I hadn't taken the photograph but am only a viewer, those are the themes I see at work. None of these thoughts were in my mind when I had the urge to take the photo, at least not consciously. I only knew that it was a subject I really wanted to capture. According to the principle I've been describing, this would be fine. As an artist, my only immediate need is to act on this impulse. Some of these urges will result in more successful photographs than others, but overall, the instinct to find a certain subject photoworthy is reason enough to capture it. The judgments and explanations can come later, by me or by others.

However, Jon didn't seem very satisfied with this answer which essentially is "I dunno why I find that worth taking a picture of" so I wonder if I am missing a step in the artistic process. Am I not enough in touch with my process or professional enough in my approach to my work that I'm missing some preliminary, preparatory stage where I should be able to articulate my interest before I pick up the camera? Am I taking the easy way out and not rigorously enough challenging myself as an artist? One flip answer I gave Jon was "If I could describe in words what moves me about the subject, I wouldn't need the camera to capture it." I think there is some truth to that, but I'm not sure it doesn't evade some very important issues that I've tried to tease out in this post. That's where I'm stuck in the thought process. If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions on where I can go from here, I'd love to hear them.

Well, Jon, that was a hell of a question. Thanks for the rides and the blog entry topic.


Matt Morris said...

I like the way you frame the question, so don’t think me dismissive if I say that, in a sense, you don’t choose. Something about “the repetition of bright yellow tags and the big, bold black numbers,” for example, triggered an almost Pavlovian response. I’m oversimplifying, but ultimately the answer lies under myriad interwoven psychological layers. Although you may never truly know why certain images move you, draw you to them, by continuing with your work–& by all means, do–you garner greater understanding of your subconscious & in turn, the human condition. Art is not only self-expression but also self-discovery.

Riley said...

Thanks, Matt, for the kind words. I agree with you. I just wanted to make sure that I wasn't missing something, taking the easy way out, by not "knowing" up front why I was doing what I was doing.

Jacob said...

I think Matt is right, that there isn't (and probably shouldn't) be anything conscious about seeking images that move you.

You take pictures of what capture your attention, for any number of reasons: Irony, the colors, the composition, etc. You don't consciously say "this image has bold, sweeping lines and a juxtaposition of textures", you just say "hey, this looks neat."

I think the artistic vision comes when you self-censor your work and chose those that stand out, maybe forming little factions of images that revolve around certain themes.

However, you may choose to take images thematically, but going out and taking pictures of only old churches, or homeless people, etc. For those, usually you are trying to editorialize your photography by making it evoke certain emotions.

I think you are a graphically minded person, and you love words, typefaces and patterns and bold colors. I don't think there is as much emotion in your images as there is a graphical element in how you determine what looks good in a photo.

Riley said...

Well, thanks, Jacob. That makes me feel better. I agree with you. Just wanted a sounding board to make sure I wasn't missing something obvious. The tough thing about the artistic pursuit is that it's largely a solitary enterprise and so you don't often get to bounce ideas off of people.

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