This photograph is currently without context or validity. Or even a caption. But I like the way it looks because it speaks to me of quiet isolation and melancholy. In fact, it was a quiet moment in a light hearted shoot. Context is a capricious bitch.
I recently posted an image of an older man, surrounded by other people, at the Vatican in Rome. The photograph is part of a disconnected series of images I took in and around the front of the building on a rainy day. I don't know who the man is or why he was there. I just liked the look and feel of the moment and decided to take the photograph. In retrospect I could supply all kinds of pseudo-psychological rationales for taking and printing that particular shot. But I doubt that any of the reasons that I can think up now would have been in play at the time.
I posted the image in part to thank a reader for some kind comments he made earlier on his own blog. I didn't think anything more about the photo or the blog entry until I reviewed a comment left by Kenneth Tanaka who called into question the value of posting a photograph cast adrift from any sort of context. Here's exactly what he asked:
This is an excellent example of a competently-captured photograph that becomes lost without context. Who is this man? Who are the faceless people greeting him? Why is the reported location significant? It's Exhibit A in the thesis that photographs, in fact, do not really tell stories in the absence of language or richer context. Eh?
While I'm fairly sure that Kenneth's question was genuine I was a bit taken aback. I don't mind a serious critique of any image but it seemed as though he was saying that a photograph must have some sort of context in order to be valid or to have a reason for its existence. In short, that all images must be contextual, informed and substantiated in order to have any relevance whatsoever to the engaged practice of photography.
In my mind one of the traditions of photography, and especially street or documentary photography is about capturing life in the moment and sharing it. We make images of things that ping our subconscious and try to share the jolt or micro jolt of curiosity that caused us to point our lens at a stranger and make the photograph in the first place.
Ken implies, by way of his question and a later follow up comment, that without a overarching context, and perhaps the support of other faces turned toward camera that images like the one in question "do not really tell stories in the absence of language or richer context." His statement seems to imply that images without context have no value or ability to connect with viewers.
I'm still trying to process exactly what Kenneth's rhetorical intentions are and in the process I went to a site he's produced of his own photographs and read his own manifesto/statement of support for his own work. It goes like this:
"I am most interested in the challenge of discovering and capturing the ephemeral beauty, incongruities, discontinuities, ambiguities, and humor in the everyday world. This, to me, is what the determined, observant and patient camera is uniquely able to do. "
(I added the bold type face for emphasis--Kirk)
And here is a random sample of his work from his site:
I guess what I am trying to come to grips with is just what is different, contextually, between the image I put in the original post and many of the images that Kenneth has shared. And, in a larger sense, whether all images without written stories or journalistic captions, and without instantly recognizable celebrities are less valuable and less accessible without some context.
In many ways the history of photography as art is the history of discarded or non-existent context. The shot of your child may have relevance to you but in the ocean of images on the web it's hardly more than a disconnected document of another human.
To focus solely on the back story of the human face within the map of my entire frame dismisses the other elements of the frame which may have equal relevance to the viewer. In fact, much modern art outside of photography is concerned with tone, shape, color and even the surface topology of the art (minimalist painting?). Why is it that photography must hew to a higher test that the other arts by making every image dependent on and wedded to its context?
What if, subconsciously, I was drawn to make the image because I liked the out of focus rendering of the man's hat in the left hand side of the frame, or the repeating pattern of the columns.....?
This is the original image from yesterday's post.