Monday, December 5, 2011

Picture Perfect

My brother, sisters & I
I was thinking today about what makes a photograph art? And is there such a thing as the perfect photograph? Of course there's the subjective side of things and we may all have a different opinion on any given image. But for me, the answer might be connected to our concept of what life is. Is life just a random confluence of matter and time and events that just sort of falls out of the sky, or the brain, to splatter on the pavement in front of us to be interpreted sort of like a street Rorschach test? Or is there a lot more meaning to life, and a lot less random particle collisions with weird outcomes and more ………………….life, love, beauty, and God?

A photograph can be a lot of things, just like a human life. It can be dull, boring and flat, but useful. It can be a record of a place or time, but with no-one to care about it or be interested in it, it might seem to have no point. But if it has a connection to something or somewhere that people care about and are interested in, it has a life and a magic of its own. If it has a provenance that is somehow intertwined with our lives or something we care about it comes alive to us.

 Today I was looking at a box of old pictures that really tells a story of who my family is. After my mom’s death, it seems I was appointed as the “keeper of the past” without even realizing it, (and I didn’t even get a tee-shirt). There are hundreds of photographs and negatives and papers and keepsakes that are a living record of my family throughout the generations. As I looked at these old pictures of people, many of whom I didn’t even recognize, I was sad. Who were these people who were so obviously important to people who were important to people who were important to people I care about?

Normally, I don’t spend a lot of time taking family pictures or people pictures at all, but looking back through these old photos, I realize that they do have importance, even for those of us who are not sentimental about them. Most people are kind of funny looking and they definitely are not models so they don’t know how to pose very well and they make funny faces and have bad hair and weird clothes, wait a minute, that’s just me I’m talking about, you on the other hand, look great!

Don’t get me wrong, there is beauty in just being family to one another. All of those traditions and little rituals and trade-offs that are part of growing up Canadian in the times that we live in, have a meaning and a beauty of their own, I know that. And I know that an incredibly beautiful photograph can be absolutely empty of any other meaning if it doesn’t connect the viewer with life in some way. The best pictures connect us to something in our own lives, a memory, a moment, a fear, a shared experience, a dream, an emotion, even a nightmare. That’s the challenge of artists of all kinds, but especially the photographer. That’s what separates the record keepers, from those that can draw the viewer into the scene and capture their heart.

There are at the very least, two kinds of beauty when it comes to photographs: The kind that comes from the existing emotional attachment that we have with the subject and the kind that the photographer manages to evoke through the subject, or in spite of the subject, even without a pre-existing connection.

Life also seems to diverge into two parallel paths, do we choose door A with the easy path, the wide path that so many are taking, do we just follow along because it happens to be the easy way and everyone is doing it, or do we choose the narrow door, the one that looks hard to enter? If my record in the supermarket checkout line is any indication, I’m in trouble! But I've learned to stick with it and ride it out, even if my mind says, “go that way, fool.” 

Sorry, I don’t have a lot of answers, but when it comes to beauty, I’m convinced I have it right. To me, much of the beauty around us comes from the family who loves you and makes you happy. Beauty and perfection, in a photograph are very similar, if you love it, and it makes you happy, that's great, and if it happens to serve God in some way, even just by sharing the wonder of creation, or by recording the family that He gave you and the moments that you've shared with them, you just might be on the right track.
Mom, Terry, Chris, Doug, & Duke in 1962.