I have spent the past week doing some suggested reading for a program I'm attending in France this summer. It has been enjoyable, informative, and a welcome distraction from the thousands of people who are in town for the Masters. One of the books, Susan Sontag's "On Photography", I have read in the past and am revisiting, the other that I have finished is Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida". Both have been a welcome exercise in rethinking photography and looking deeper into practice and theory. Best of all, its like being in school again, although I'm sure some would debate the fun of that.
What I have noticed through reading these, and so far in some of the further reading that I have already delved into (there are five books on the list), is something that was brought up to me by a professor and mentor as an undergraduate: Time.
For a long time I have been trying to express my own thoughts on time and how it pertains to my own photography. There is the obvious, which is that any photographic exposure is dependent upon time, but it goes deeper than that. Maybe it was being so removed from the academic setting, or maybe just time itself slipped away from me, but all the times I tried to express my thoughts on the issue I kept hitting a wall. I will freely admit, though, having just read two very thorough works that delve into photo theory and criticism has been a catalyst for my thoughts to finally come to a point that I feel I can verbally express them. However, I also feel like I could go down a rabbit hole that may make me sound like I'm trying to be far more introspective and sure of my thoughts than I actually am.
It's funny, though, that time would be the one thing that has baffled me. I have known from what I've learned in classrooms, readings, and discussions over the years that time, if nothing else, is the core of photography; not just in the way that we create images, but in the way that we see them and the way that we consume them. An image is a moment captured, a time passed. Whether it was yesterday, fifty years ago, or fifty seconds ago, what we see in an image is no more.
This idea that the moment has passed seems to be more obvious in images that contain people, whether they are the subject or not. It is easy for us to look at a person and tell from their attire, or possibly our familiarity with the actual person, that a certain amount of time has past since the image was captured. Clothing may have changed, the person in the image may be younger than they are now, or even a part of the background may be known to have changed; either way we are very aware that time has passed. What is interesting about this, though, is how it affects how we see theses images and how we think about them.
As time passes, and we are aware that an image is older, we start to have internal questions. What was the reason an image was taken? What was going on? Where is this person now? Does this place still exist? All of these questions have run through my own head for years as I have looked at work from countless photographers. I even look at my own work at times and ask similar questions. Yet, my own work is where I began to wonder how some of what I have been reading really applies.
Mind you, all of what I was reading was musings about work created by people other than the writer themselves (so far). As I mentioned before, many, if not all, of the images referenced were of or contained people. This making much of the writing either easy for the reader to understand, or the writer to express, clearly. My work, however, tends to have no people in it at all, though. This started to make me wonder how what I was reading could apply to what I do and what I want my work to say.
What I started to realize was that all the various musings of time that were being made, those about the people in the images, could very well be applied to my work or that of others who tend to stray from including people. For one, there is a person in every image... Me. I am the one behind the camera, I am the guide, the one who has said what was important at that moment in time that the viewer should also see. This part is simple, if not visually evident. The other thing that I realized was the content.
Every image of mine has people in it, if you consider time. There is something in every image, if not most of the image, that is made by people. Buildings, objects, vehicles, all of things are of and by people. They may not be actually people themselves, but they are a direct result of people creating them. As time is concerned with the content of the photographs, it is upon the viewer to ask questions again, but with a different reference. No longer are we asking is this person alive, or what are they doing now? Now we look and wonder what has gone on there? What does that look like now, and if it's different, why is this rendering important?
Over the years I have struggled with the idea that time is something of great importance to photography, but I have come to find I might have been overthinking it. Yes, based on time and the questions it causes us to ask ourselves about images, time can seem to be something deep and contemplative, something only academics would write books about. However, I have come to find that everything about the photograph is and is of time. Our understanding, our seeing, and all that we process is informed by and moved by time.
I hope that I didn't go too deep for everyone. I really get a kick out of photo theory and criticism, so I have a tendency to ramble when I write or speak of it. If you had seen some of the stuff I deleted before posting this you'd be glad this is all I dumped on you. I highly recommend, though, if you are interested in any of these ideas, to read both Sontag and Barthes. They give a very interesting look into photography that you may not have considered, or thought so intently about before.