Friday, December 1, 2017


Musicians have it easier than photographers because a song doesn't have to be about anything in particular. 

Don't get me wrong. A songs can have a strong message. Nina Simone and Public Enemy were put on earth for a reason, after all: Wake the fuck up, you! But a song can be nice too just because it's beautiful. Or mysterious, or simple, or hummable. A Bach cantata? What the hell is that about beyond pure pleasure? Such songs can get stuck like tar in your ears even if they're not about anything in particular. Everyone reading this knows and enjoys such songs, and maybe also inuits that tar eventually hardens into the canon.

So why do most photographers fall into the trap of making their photos about something? Just this morning online I browsed a photo essay about gay performers, and another about kids with genetic conditions, another about an airport carpet, and one about body image. And so on. The web is crawling with them. It seems to me such photographs serve as mere functionaries. They hold roughly the same strategic position as advertising illustrations or roadsigns, sacrificing all their energy toward a larger purpose.

And indeed, without pitching in toward a larger purpose, a photo will have a hard time making its way in the world. Good luck making a book, or attending a portfolio review, or inciting social media coverage, or earning a degree with photographs about nothing in particular. Even a photographic Bach would have trouble. Every pressure in the world pushes photographers toward artistic bureaucracy. And they happily oblige!

But I like to think some photos are still made just for the sheer joy of seeing. They aren't really about anything bigger, and that's ok. You see things, you put them in a 2D frame. It works or it doesn't. The end. As Lee Friedlander once put it, "The pleasures of good photographs are the pleasures of good photographs." I guess he would know.

Musicians have known this for a while too, and have embraced it, and it has not held them back. A song doesn't have to be about anything in particular. 

If you are out there making type of photo, don't be discouraged. You have value.


Jurado said...

This is a beautiful and very true sentiment. I would have never been able to think of that parallel - and the limitations that we hold photographers to. Even within a single song, a musician can change topics, travel back and forth between disparate subjects, and use that freedom to increase their scope as songwriters. And - it never has to mean anything. It can be as vague as possible.

Thank you for the reminder to create without limitations, theme, or purpose, other than to create - and to let that stand on its own.

Harry Lew said...

Thank you for that! I almost always make images devoid of a larger meaning or purpose. Your post makes me feel slightly less guilty for doing so.

hyperlocality said...

Anyone can offer assent to greatness, but an anonymous street corner can steal 15 minutes of my time, easy. Photographs are descriptively democratic, the rest is taxonomy.

Peter said...

A Bach cantata, you ask -- what the hell is that about beyond pure pleasure?

Well, um, actually I think it tends to be about Jeebus. Although yes, that important ingredient can easily be ignored.

So why do most photographers fall into the trap of making their photos about something?

Because that's where the (few) commissions are? Because they think (sometimes rightly) that the quest for the something will help impel them to look, and thereby to do good photography? Because it's not a trap? Yes, there are indeed plenty of dreary examples; but then there are plenty of dreary examples of photos that don't purport to be about anything.

Do keep taking photos that aren't -- or anyway that aren't obviously -- about anything. I enjoy them. But if you suddenly thought "Yes, I shall devote the next five weekends to 'The Barbers of Eugene'", I'd like to see a selection from the results. I've a hunch they'd be good.

Unknown said...

agree. just like Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida write, its not only about the content in the 2D frame. some photographs are "empty". even more. no composition. no sharpens. the colors are wrong. and still we can not look away. B. van Manen in Beyond Maps and Atlases show us the magic.
i beliefe some "gurus" on the internet started it and now the snowball is getting bigger and bigger....but I don't know.
nice and simple read Mr. Andrews....about nothing but still important. peace

Niels said...

Bach is math, not pleasure - you are a pervert ;)

Unknown said...

Thank You Mr. Andrews!