I’m gradually moving some posts from my old photomontana archives over here. This originally appeared in September 2010.
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I like to challenge sacred cows. It’s fun, and it can be quite interesting. There are times too when it can lead to breakthroughs in the way you work as a photographer.
One cliché that I hear all the time, and one that is accepted as conventional wisdom, is that every picture tells a story… but I don’t buy it. I don’t really think that a photograph, an individual photograph, can tell a story. A series of photographs, like a photo essay or a book for instance can. Maybe. If they’re done well. But not an individual photograph. A photo can suggest a story, it can illustrate a story, any number of stories can be built around it, but it can’t tell one. A story is an event that unfolds over a period of time, whether that period of time be long or short. A photograph captures a fraction of a second and freezes it in time. It shows us that frozen moment. That’s not telling us a story, it’s showing us something. Feel free to argue that.
Photography is visual communication. More often than not words fail in trying to describe it. A great work of art grabs you right in the gut. It reaches you emotionally. It takes you where words can’t.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Victor Hugo regarding music:
“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
Those words can be applied to photography, and all visual arts for that matter, as well. Trying to pin down a fine photograph with words can be as futile as, say, trying to describe a Pollock painting. They can grab you, they can move you deeply, but they exist in a realm that words simply can’t reach.
Photography as an art form is just that in my book. It’s expressing that which cannot be said. I’d say we’re far better off as photographers working with ‘that which cannot be said’ than we are in futilely trying to tell a story.