Words About Pictures

My mentor and photography coach extraordinaire Don Giannatti has given his new students the assignment of writing a vision statement for their work.

I'm not in that group--I'm an old student--but I'm playing along anyway.

It's hard. I get trapped between poetic words and their literal meanings.

For example, I started off writing something about distilling a strong liquor of emotions out of an image, a scene, a set, a view. But then I looked up the actual definition of distilling, and it turned out to mean vaporizing and separating. 

Not what I had in mind.

I really mean something more like reducing a sauce: If you cook, you know that simmering intensifies and concentrates the flavors of a liquid.

I love that. But saying I'm trying to reduce images to emotions just doesn't have the right poetic ring to it.

Now that I've been working with perfume, I think I might find a good analogy there. A strong image is very much like a well-constructed fragrance: The notes of a perfume elicit memories, desires, and feelings, all by relying on associations and sensual responses--a kind of instinctual code, more powerful than language, even.

It Isn't What It Is

This commercial fuel stop is right at the edge of town; just a half mile north of here, the busy industrial road becomes a rural highway that winds through Oregon's wooded hills and farmlands. 

 

This is the first picture I took at the station, back when I was a shy photographer who didn't know how to sneak around. It's the view of the mill to the east of the station. I stood on far edge of the property, trying to conceal myself in the grassy field between the tarmac and the fence. I was too chicken to walk around the tarmac itself.

I worried about being watched, being asked what I was doing, being told to leave. Now I'm an old hand at getting kicked out of places at night, for reasons I would never have guessed when I was a teenager.
 

In a previous life I might have been a long distance trucker, or a lonely traveling salesman. Scenes like these, in which (for example) a bare bulb glares into the indifferent night, make me yearn for experiences I don't even want in this life, but which I somehow feel can--must!--connect me to the cosmos, and to the true meaning of everything. Is this what the Germans call Sehnsucht

Light Nerding

The problem isn't finding interesting subjects, it's being alert to interesting light. 

 

Fortunately for photographers, interesting light happens every day, everywhere you go. Even when you're waiting for your order of chicken wings to arrive.

 

Never hesitate to arrange subjects to capitalize on an interesting light situation in progress. Even if your in-laws look at you funny (they're going to anyway, admit it).

But Is It Art?

 Dulcimer at Train Station                    Photo by Roseanna Smith 2018

Dulcimer at Train Station                    Photo by Roseanna Smith 2018

My friends are smart, sensitive, culturally aware people. Painters and writers, musicians and actors. I adore them, and I like to think they return the sentiment. Some of the ones I love the most--and who knew me when I was a painter of gigantic canvases, back in the Paleolithic--have asked if I feel like I'm turning my back on my "true calling" by taking photographs of chocolate and lipstick. 

Before I get to my answer, let me take a detour into the literary world for a moment. 

If ever there was a poem for product photographers, it's Rilke's Ninth Elegy. Yes, it's long, confusing, and written in German (is that redundant?). But its heart is a spiritual celebration of the mundane, the visible world of things--exactly what can be captured in photographs.

Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,
you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe
where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him
something simple which, formed over generations,
lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze.
Tell him of Things.

So my answer to my friends is, I'm fully embracing my calling. I love shooting product. I would even say I feel a kind of joy doing commercial photography. Taking an interesting picture of candy, or shoes, or shampoo bottles requires spending time with them, and getting to know their physical properties: How they absorb and reflect light, what their smell and taste and texture is and how to convey that, how they're used in real life. And also what they mean to people: Their symbolic lives, their place in our dreams. Sure they're just objects, but they're brimming with purpose and meaning. 

Rilke would get it. Superficially the work of the commercial photographer is to depict and sell products, but our real job is to astonish the angel by telling him of Things. 

 Roseanna Smith 2018

Roseanna Smith 2018