I sometimes get asked what kind of photography I like, and I don’t think there is a simple answer. However, there appears to be an underlying motif, in that I seem to prefer photography that asks questions instead of giving answers, photography that requires a little bit of an investment and that then repays whatever time is invested generously.
As I noted a little while ago, I’m not fan of most “street photography” simply because simple visual jokes are just too ubiquitous in that genre: For me, looking at street photography is like watching a “sitcom” like “Friends”: the jokes are all just a bunch of fairly lame one liners, which to no small extent rely on another one following rapidly (lest the viewer gets bored). Needless to say, there are some exceptions to this - some of the photographers I admire did produce extremely appealing “street photography”.
In any case, there is an element of entertainment here, and it would be unfair to claim that other genres of photography do not contain it as well. In fact, I have noticed that the entertainment element appears to be quite common: Providing visual thrills, and then being left with… Yes, what is it? It’s a bit like a void, maybe, even though naming it that makes it sound too existentialist. But it’s a “been there, seen that”, and now we have to move on to see something even more exciting - because, after all, what would be entertainment without excitement?
Let me give an example. Over the past few months, Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar has received quite a bit of press. When I looked at the photography, I noted that while it was well done, for me it basically was… well… entertainment. Do you want to see what the lobby of the CIA looks like? Have a look! Do you want to see pods holding cryonically preserved bodies? Well, here they are! But then once you have seen these (and why not show these places?) what is left? What does one actually learn from seeing the lobby of the CIA? Would one go back often to that photograph? I know I wouldn’t. And why would I? Once I know what the lobby of the CIA looks like there is nothing left to be seen.
In fact, exposing all these places somehow leaves us with less: Because whereas before we saw the photograph of the lobby of the CIA we had some ideas about what it would look like, with a certain thrill maybe, now that we know, the thrill is gone. Imagination has been replaced by the mundane. And isn’t that another feature of entertainment, at least the visual one that has become so ubiquitous? There is nothing left to think about, and there is no space for our own imagination. Contrast this with Taryn Simon’s earlier The Innocents - a book about people who were wrongly convicted of crimes and then, often many years later, freed based on new evidence. Not only does the book grant us a peek into the lives of people who had to live in jail because, in the way we now infamously like to phrase these things, mistakes was made (who made the mistake? dare we ask? let’s not!), but there are also repercussions, because of the immense likelihood that while we look at the book, there still are innocent people in jail, some of them on death row.
Make no mistake, I don’t want to spend all day and night only looking at work like The Innocents - often, looking at work like An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar is quite nice. But then, when I think about photography that I like to re-visit, photography that moves me, photography that actually requires to go back to it, to discover more aspects, it’s the former and not the latter - at least for me.