Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Frog in the Swamp

They were there all along. Only I was facing the other way, wrestling with the barns of Hollow Farm while enjoying the unusually multivoiced choir of birds around me. Jannequin's polyphony had nothing on these guys, but the barns were stubborn, stuck there like cows with their heads down in the pasture. I had hoped that the carpet of pink blossoms would somehow help me make the picture I wanted. I had been moving around, looking for angles on the setting sun and the fiber of the blossoms. The barns textures glowed as the sun got lower; the paintpot was ready, but the whole would not compose itself. I had probably shot 200 images of the barns when I first turned around. Beyond the curtain of trees the sun skated across the marsh grasses, a last thrill of golden, warm sunlight, and the birds were exalting, and I heard frogs there too. I snapped just 4 images and knew I had something I would like. Then I turned and snapped another 200 of the barns.

When I went back the next day for another sunset shoot the field had been mowed. It was just a large lawn between the barns and the old stone wall.


The arbitrary is the enemy of the artistic. If you find that proclamation a bit overbearing, I'm in sympathy. I usually try to avoid such terms as "artistic," and "artist," and I'd much prefer principals to laws and rules. Defining art usually raises more problems than it solves as does this concept of arbitrary, but I address it now as I try to understand why I have published so few photos from The Hollow Farm and what that has to do with my own intuitions about photography.

As already mentioned, this farm is unusual in its orderliness. The land is flat, the barns sit along a straight stretch of road, and all lie at right angles to each other and to the road. All this means that each time I reposition myself and shoot, the elements of my images adjust themselves in ways that are not wholly distinct from the previous shot. As I review these numerous images, and watch the compositions slowly morph from shot to shot, it is usually hard to single out any one shot. Then I begin wondering if the image would be improved if I had shot under different light or with a change in leaf color or when the grasses are turning to seed. I'd like to address that orderliness in a way that seems, if not definitive, at least complete in order to set off the ways one can make it dance, but no single or set of images has emerged to do that.

If one seeks merely to publish pretty images, such concerns are largely irrelevant. One goes looking for pretty sights and then uses a camera or paint brush to document them. They exist at one level removed and inferior to the real thing. For me photography is not be about finding pretty images to shoot or even about shooting pretty images prettily; it's not about documenting the external world. It is about taking the scene in front of me, whatever it may be, as raw material and composing elements of it into a new whole that expresses something beyond the original, a mood, an emotion, something universal or iconic or surprising. It may make us see something old in a new way ormake us fit something new into a familiar emotional resonance. In the end, the compositon should feel like the inevitable arrangement to satisfy the ends of the image.

Susan Sontag, in her book on photography, suggests that painting is ill equipped to express the surreal, that the medium of photography is much more capable of truly capturing the surreal because it is so firmly attached to capturing the light of the real world. I raise this point here because I think it is a perception that goes well beyond strict surrealism, that in fact the relation of real and super-real is a fundamental paradox that forms a cornerstone of photography as an art form.

While my intuitions tell me that a given image is or isn't arbitrary, explaining why can sound a bit like intellectual rationalization. It's easy to talk about elements of a composition and their meaning, but whether the image is merely an intellectual construct or expressive in a way that goes beneath surface reality resists the verbal explanation. The image included here struck me as a likely candidate to illustrate what I mean by not arbitrary. To explain its non-arbitrariness I might talk about its division into two equal rectangles top and bottom, about the way barn and moon balance and their symbolic reverberations, about the way the dividing line of the trees seems to echo the roof line of the barn, or I might even try to justify the odd point at which I have decided to cut the barn off at the knees, but my words can't capture the deeper harmonies of the work which I feel. That is not to say that the image is profound or that one ought to like it or even that I consider it among my best. For me, it merely means I feel this image has received its ultimate form here and fulfilled its super-real potantial.

The opposite of the arbitrary is the committed. A month from now, when the moon is again rising full at dusk, I may see a similar shot with a spot of cloud in it and say to myself, that adds the finishing touch; it is more committed to the initial vision than it was before. Or perhaps it is my lack of vision that is keeping me from seeing what all those other images taken at The Hollow might become.

I risk this wandering philosophizing in the hope of eliciting thoughts that further clarify my understanding. I invite comments which may help me think further about this issue of arbitrariness.

Weekend one of the photo exhibit was a success. I look forward to seeing those you you who have told me you plan to attend this coming weekend.