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◌  Notes on photography

25 September 2010

I started my photoblog a year ago with nothing in mind except a certain style, and it’s refined that style and taught me useful things. You should do one. I’m trying to get back into it after compounded interruptions, and I want to make some notes.


I was re-reading If Not, Winter, Anne Carson’s translation of the Sappho fragments. It’s a strange translation and a very good one. It shows Sappho’s power as a witness: her way of folding all the vital textures and motions of a scene lightly into one or two lines. This is lovely but not surprising. What gets me is the drama. Sappho is engaging. In a way I don’t feel again in canonical poetry until maybe Bashō or John Donne (and not that often after), Sappho’s narrator is a knowable person, whose intelligence and vulnerability are not hidden. This is worked in the subtlest ways, by shadings and ambiguities between perspectives. She can’t come at her internal subjects directly. If they were not wrapped in her euphoric precision about the external world, the things she says about herself would be too much. The voice, the genius, needs a foundation of what for a lyric poet is mere technical brilliance.

Because they are fragments, we do get internal phrases out of context. If they had no context at all, they would not be good: a fragment like 38, “you burn me”, is too easy. You could make millions like it by randomly combining striking words. But I can stand it because, from the other 191 pieces of Sappho I’ve read, I believe she made such an ambitious metaphor not only justified but necessary. Very few lyric poets could convince me of that. Rilke, for example, seems to want to tell me how he feels without mentioning why, and drifts in well-appointed solipsism, and he’s better than most. Yet I think lyric poetry is one of very few places where what Sappho does, taking the listener out of themselves, sneaking them into the theater of someone else’s consciousness, can work.

Someone else’s consciousness

There is still old-style observational comedy going around – where you pretend to be outraged because you haven’t bothered to figure something out – but a lot of popular humor now is very sophisticated. People like Maria Bamford, Louis CK, Stewart Lee, and Sarah Silverman, who ten years ago were the avant-garde, are popular for saying things that otherwise don’t get said. It’s hard for me to distinguish this from the proper function of a philosopher or public intellectual, or even the artist as exemplary sufferer (where, Susan Sontag says, “The anguish of prematurely disillusioned, highly civilized people alternating between irony and melancholic experiments with their emotions is indeed familiar”).

It would be tedious to pretend that the comedian Ross Noble, for example, is not doing something close to lyric poetry, and doing it exceedingly well. He has that euphoric precision, and with it he shows parts of human experience that usually can’t be shared. His work is much more moving and deeper than, say, Bob Dylan’s. Watching Noble is an adventure in empathy, intelligence, taste, and the integration of the self; it’s challenging; it gently upsets my worldview; it reminds me that inside the personas I see there are people like and unlike me in ways I can’t anticipate. It’s humanizing. Listening to Dylan, by contrast, is a visit to a man building a larger-than-life statue to something that’s never seen or felt but, believe him, very real. Extra real. Oh, so very real. It’s frivolous. Besides much funnier, Noble’s work is much more serious than Dylan’s.


Probably most survivors would rather leave the wreckage of authenticity sacrosanct as a memorial, but my remotely operated submarine and I want to disturb the debris field just enough to recover a single artifact: the ideal of transparency.

Rilke and Dylan are beloved of something I think of as the evidence of inspired personal vision theory, which is that we should judge an artwork by how well it certifies that the artist had an experience we can’t understand. We’re supposed to congratulate an artist not for making their subject relatable but for letting us relate to them as a romantic hero of such perception that they can relate to their subject, which we know is hard because they can’t let us do it. I don’t know how to put this more charitably. It leaves me hungry for art in which the author’s voice only appears inevitably. It might be that the most worthwhile things show up when you’re trying hardest to represent something other than yourself.


Is there anything as boring as a photo that pushes to make its subject look good or bad? It’s an orphan, disconnected from the subject, who is only raw material, from the photographer, who tries to pin it on the subject, and so from the viewer, who has been handed something that’s striking on the outside but has no inside and no context. I think we’ve all seen photos like this: portraits that show a person and beauty but not the beauty of that person; urban series that show a city and textures but not the texture of that city. Maybe I’m underestimating the number of people doing this deliberately, as a kind of unreliable narration, to make points about how what we represent is never quite what is. I think more likely it’s laziness.

I put these phrases in writing, “I think” and “it might be” and so on, to keep in mind that I’m not trying to show the whole truth. I’m uncomfortable with broad evaluations because in photography the best technique I know is to put away ambition and make things that are nothing but the truth: things which are so faithful to the complexity of the world that they have some chance of being interesting more than once. This means mainly in-focus photographs of things with visible connections to other things. It means giving up on looking with flat, flattering eyes, or with hooked, hypocrisy-seeky eyes. It means striding like a fool through the front door of obviousness but keeping going.