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Photography as a negotiation with the everyday

Photography, as far as the realm of fine arts is concerned, is still a relatively new medium, and one that took a long time to be recognised as a ‘serious’ artform. As I’ve been trying to explore this medium more recently, I’ve been wondering – what is it photography can do? what are its limitations? what are its quirks? They’re the kind of questions that can hold a lifetime of exploration.

More photographs are currently being created every day than ever before – we know this. The vast majority of people in the developed world have an instantly accessible camera part and packaged with their smart phone. Taking and sharing pictures has, for many of us, become an integral part of our daily lives, and has made our standard communication more visual than ever. I’ve found recently that sharing images with friends overseas can fill some of the gaps that would take words and words to cover.

And so with recorded images being now such a big part of our lives, what does this mean for fine art photography? How do we use photography to create something out of the ordinary, or make something that hasn’t been seen before, or communicate particular ideas and emotions? How can we utilise this visual fluency?

Photography is not like writing, drawing or painting, where what is created is really only limited by the artist’s skill or imagination. While they are extremely easy to produce here in 2013, photographs are still two-dimensional light recordings of things that exist in real space.

But in saying that, photography has never been an exact capture of what the photographer sees. The camera is, in a way, its own entity. Even the most basic changes in lens, aperture and exposure time dramatically change an image. A camera reacts to colour and luminance in a different way to our eyes.

And since the very early days of the medium, the artist has had the ability to edit images to varying degrees throughout different stages of the image capturing process. [I’ve been meaning for a while to check out this book Faking It: A Visual History of 150 Years of Image Manipulation Before Photoshop]. With the continuous advances in digital photography and editing software, it is becoming ever easier to add to, subtract from or warp images. Even if you get to the point of questioning where photography becomes digital art or mixed media, it is still a fact that the photographic process never starts from nothing.

It is because of this idea that I have begun to think of photography as a kind of negotiation with the everyday. [At the Metropolitan Museum of Art I visited a William Eggleston exhibition titled “At war with the obvious”. I suppose I see it as less of a direct opposition.] There are so many wonderful photographers who create stunning images by seeing the world in their unique ways, and finding the extraordinary elements in the forms and events around them. It is special to be surprised by images of things that are normally banal, or to be moved by the emotion present in a particular photograph.

However, I find myself discontent to record only what is already happening. I have been reading genre fiction for too long to be content with the world as it is. I want to use photography as a means of making real the strange and contradictory, and to tell stories. It is hardly surprising, but I am more interested in using photography to capture a created scene than to document the world, coming closer to the process of shooting a film.

As an artist, I’m interested in small deviations from reality, and I think photography lends itself reasonably well to this idea. I’ve become particularly intrigued by the notion of the ‘uncanny’ where the familiar is made unsettling. I’d like to do visually what fiction writer Shirley Jackson does with words.

Aside from my current limitations in photoshopping skill, I’m not at this point in time as interested in serious photo manipulation as I am in the photographic and basic editing processes, and finding ways to build scenes in real space.

This is, as I’m learning, not particularly easy to do singlehandedly. So while I’m planning my next big adventure photographic project (attempting a slightly larger scale than a simple single-subject shoot), I need a way to keep practising photography on a more regular basis.

I’ve recently begun to think of my own process as utilising two modes: top-down or bottom-up (terms I’ve appropriated from information theory, in case you were wondering).

The top-down process means starting with a conceptual idea that I want to express visually, where I usually have most of the elements in mind. It then becomes a matter of finding what I need to realise the idea. (This is generally much more difficult or time-consuming than it seemed at the beginning.)

The bottom-up process involves deciding that I just need to make something and picking up any disparate things and places that are around to be used. Sometimes I have success in putting elements together to make a bit of concept, sometimes not, but it is never a wasted process. All of my Meanwhile, in Suburbia images came from wanting to use the interesting light I found on my night walks in some way while adding in an ambiguous narrative element.

One artist whose work I love, Brock Davis, regularly creates wonderfully quirky, fun and imaginative work out of, it seems, anything he has lying around. Just look at his incredible iPhone photos.

Sometimes for me, the process will sort of start at both ends and meet in the middle: I have either a vague conceptual idea or technical experiment I’m interested in and I’ll use what’s on hand to explore it. The top-down images take a fair bit longer to come to fruition, and require a certain amount of investment in the idea for it to be realised. The bottom-up images are more regular activities, but may have less depth. However, I think incorporating both of these processes is very important.

As someone just starting out, with limited resources, all of the work necessarily involves using what is available – finding settings or lighting states that are interesting, making or scrounging props and costumes. Using what’s on hand in an interesting way to communicate an idea is a big, engaging challenge, and one I need to work on.

The other day I was talking to my friend Mattea about the top-down vs bottom-up idea and we had an interesting discussion about how useful limitations can be when making work – it’s part of why we both enjoy design.

Just look at the film The Five Obstructions – it’s definitely worth a watch. The film’s premise is built on director Lars von Trier challenging fellow filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake the film The Perfect Human five times, each with different ‘obstructions’. The films that Leth creates are each incredibly different, and are more interesting for being the result of finding creative ways around von Trier’s challenges.

Perhaps the limitations I’m finding with trying to create cinematic-style photography could be turned around to push the work further, and take out some of the crippling vastness of possibility. Having to overcome challenges can force us to be more creative and find surprising solutions.

The idea of making art for the sake of making art (and to get better at it) is, I think, integral. And in practising, once you let go of the idea that every image has to say something or be profoundly beautiful, if can liberate you to take pleasure in exploring ways to negotiate with what is available to make work.

So I’ll close with an important quote from Lynda Barry:

“When you start to think of the arts as not this thing that is going to get you somewhere in terms of becoming an artist or becoming famous or whatever it is that people do, but rather as a way of making being in the world not just bearable, but fascinating, then it starts to get interesting again.”

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