Photography and Writing



This is not a good time for writing, since it’s such a bad time for reading, especially on the web. I’ve been castigating photography for its increasing reliance on what I call one liners - quick photo projects that require at most five minutes of your time and that, of course, are ideal fodder for online consumption. But photography really is just part of a larger culture that does not value thoughts any longer that can’t be summed up in a single sentence or, god forbid, thoughts that can’t even be summed up at all. The horror, the horror! We want certainty, and we want it quickly and easily. So why then even spend more time thinking about photography and writing, when I’m already sounding old or old-fashioned or both? (more)

Well, first of all, this is a personal business, because I am a writer and a photographer. I am intimately familiar with writing and photographing. For the most part, I am very familiar with how tedious writing and photography can be, how much work goes into them, how frustrating being stuck can be. But there also - occasionally - is the pleasure to be had when something turns out well, more often than not for reasons that I could not have planned.

Much of my writing and photographing is spent struggling with the restrictions of the two different media. How can I make those words express what I want to say while, at the same time, doing it smartly and elegantly? How can I make photographs that show what I want them to express while, at the same time, doing it beautifully and elegantly? These restrictions operate in different spheres, because photography is not writing, just as writing is not photography.

Photography is a fantastic tool to do certain things, just as writing is a fantastic tool to do other things that are somehow - and inexplicably - related to those earlier ones. Many photographers deny that relationship. The idea is that written language is unable to express what photography can convey. And that is true, but it misses the most important point: The written language can say things that photographs could not even dream to show. Photography, in other words, is just as flawed as the written language. This is, crucially, how photography and writing are related: They both speak of the world, in their uniquely flawed and imperfect and beautiful ways.

This is why I think it’s foolish for photographers to reject writing1: Photography is such a flawed medium - how can you not explore that more in ways that step outside of the medium, while working with (or maybe against) it at the same time? Just think about the idea of story telling. Photographic story telling differs significantly from written story telling. But to learn how stories can be told it really helps to see them told in non-photographic ways.

Often, I can’t help but wonder what some of those photographers who make those statements about photography and writing are looking at. Are they interested in anything other than photography? Do they read books? Do they look at painting? Video art? Stories can be told in an infinity of ways, and photography offers just one. I’m often surprised to see how photographers struggle to find references for their work while so many of them are easily available outside of photography.

Thus a photographer, any photographer, can grow by doing something that is related to photographing: writing. Photographers, I believe, should write to become better photographers, to understand what they are doing better. There is no need to publish any of the writing. There is no need to have the writing next to the photographs. That’s not the point. The point really just is to expand the horizon, to struggle with a different medium’s restrictions, to see how the restrictions are where the real fun, the real art is to be had.

Photography lives from its restrictions, from photographers pushing against them and subverting them and refusing to buckle under their weight. Attack the same idea with a pen (or keyboard) and experience how a space opens up, while, at the same time, borders move. Suddenly, other things can’t be done - but what about all the things that can be done, the things that photography cannot tackle? Isn’t it worthwhile to broaden one’s horizons?

1 I’m going to ignore the frequently used, Homer Simpsonesque claim that if photographers had felt the need to write they would have become writers.