When my friends talk photography there is no end to theorizing why it is art, and why it always seems to miss being ART. Such has always been the case from the beginning nearly two hundred years ago. The first photographic process — heliography — was invented around 1824 by Nicéphore Niépce.
Over lunch at the Office tavern down the street a few weeks ago my friend Dave and I renewed the discussion. I said it comes down to the one thing that is true for all people viewing photographs, which is the one question always relevant, always appropriate, always timely.
What do you see?
A photograph presents itself as something whole and entire within a frame. It prompts people to make sense of it, to tell the story of it. And not just any story but the only story that matters; it is the story of what we see based on the life we have lived. Sometimes aided by a caption, we want to complete a photograph by filling in its background, and doubly so if there is a person in the frame. We want to know just who it is and what she is doing.
We have eyes to see; this is the most basic of our sensations. The artfulness of a photograph draws you to it and into it, capturing your eye and captivating your imagination so that you want to keep looking, and wondering, hey, what’s going on there?
A photograph stands outside of our consciousness as the world itself does. Therefore when we create a photograph we are putting what is outside, inside. When we see a photograph we are moved to tell the story particular to the only thing we can truly speak of with absolute authority, ourselves.
So when I am with someone who is looking at one of my photographs, I ask.
What do you see?