Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A Sense of Wonder

Who in the world abandons a valuable instrument
such as a harp to molder away in a field?
Photograph copyright Judy and Tony King Foundation, 2020

Photography is a tool with many uses. It can be used to make portraits, report the news, photograph weddings, fashion, landscapes, architecture, and products for sale -- its uses are almost endless. Yet, photography, alone among the arts, has an unique ability that goes far beyond its utilitarian applications. It is the sense of wonder.

As distinguished from other visual media, the art of photography is primarily the art of seeing. A photograph is created at the instant of exposure, and nothing done to it afterward will make it art if it was not well seen to begin with. Throughout the history of the medium, the works that have had power, the works that have lasted, have been straight photographs. Their power and their art are in the photographer's ability to see and to present his vision in a tangible form.

Beauty and mystery. Where is the woman whose shadow is at the left?
What is the significance of the hanging rope? Who is the man
half-seen on the right? What is the source of that brilliant light
illuminating the wall on the right?

The essence of photography is that it is photographic. It is a picture made by the action of light reflected from something that has objective reality onto a sensitized surface. Light rays bouncing off something that is really there go through a lens and are recorded onto film, a sensor of some kind, or something not yet invented, but whatever it is, it is "writing with light." The unique power of photography is derived from this direct connection to reality.

Dorothea Lange kept a quotation by the English essayist Francis Bacon on her darkroom door: “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."

As photographer Fred Picker wrote in Shutterbug Magazine, "This Koudelka (print by Czech photographer Joseph Koudelka). . .contains the most amazing combination of things that I know happened, because when he made that photograph there was no electronic imaging. Here are two horses, standing in a certain position, a boy sitting on a bicycle wearing an angel suit with angel wings, here's an old lady scolding him, all in magnificent light and beautifully composed. Today, that picture could be made by some guy sitting in front of a computer. Knowing that would take all the wonder out of it."

The priest grabbed the bridal bouquet
and flourished it while the couple kissed.

In actuality, it isn’t likely “some guy sitting in front of a computer” would make such a picture, because those who alter and/or combine photographs are limited by their imaginations. They can only do what they can conceive. But photography goes beyond human imagination. As novelist Tom Clancy has said, “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

The magic of photography is that life holds so many amazing and wonderful things that are entirely unanticipated, unexpected, even unimagined in the deepest sense; that is -- no one would ever have thought of such a thing happening. And then, suddenly, right out of the fabric of life, there it is. The uniqueness of photography is in that sense of wonder that only photography can provide.

 "I can do a beautiful illustration, but it doesn't have that 'instant of wonder' that a photograph will have." (Art Director Tony Anthony, quoted in Photo District News). 

The Famous Laughing Horse
I rest my case

Photography shows us things that lie beyond our imagination and compel our amazement because they really happened. It revels in the beauty, the mystery, and the strangeness of life. It is the most powerful purely visual medium ever created.

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(Unless otherwise credited photographs are copyright David B. Jenkins 2020)

Soli Gloria Deo
To the glory of God alone

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