The Existential Photographer

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by alexander_belisle, Sep 5, 2012.

  1. I am on an ontological quest through photography. I am looking for meaning in my world through photographs.
    Do they reveal "meaning" or create "meaning"?

    Can you help me find my way?
  2. rnt


    Both, grasshopper...
  3. Depends on the viewer...
  4. Without mind, there is no meaning.
  5. Without meaning, there is nothing but pixels.
  6. I seem to keep dropping this name recently, but here goes... analyses of Antoine d'Agata's photography are often framed in the context of existentialism. Not always in a flattering way. Depends on whether the viewer or critic relates to or can identify with d'Agata's immersion into the subculture of vice as an art form; or considers it indulgent self-absorbed hedonism disguised as purposeful documentary photography. I'm inclined toward the former group, although my cynical side understands the latter even if I don't necessarily agree with it. If nothing else he successfully explores Sartre's concept of looking and the awareness of seeing and being seen to be seeing.
    Earlier this year d'Agata accompanied David Alan Harvey (Magnum, Burn Magazine) to North Dakota on a "Looking For America" documentary project that seemed perhaps undefined, at least as of that writing (April 2012). They mentioned struggling to find inspiring subject matter and images. Specifically d'Agata was rejected in his efforts to document prostitutes catering to the burgeoning oil drilling trade. (I hope I'm not oversimplifying this or seeming too flippant about it.)
    I was somewhat surprised because I found the same areas starkly beautiful and the people approachable when I visited North Dakota on business trips during the 1980s - seems like it was almost always during the winter. I only toted a Pentax compact P&S back then and took few photos, so I missed some opportunities. But I vividly recall meeting some personable down to earth folks who were hardy and rugged beyond my imagination in such incredibly cold weather. I recall, specifically, having trouble starting a rental car one winter. Even wearing a winter parka and ski gloves I couldn't tolerate the -20F temperature long enough to connect the necessary block heater. The very Nordic looking gal at the Bismarck airport rental car counter strolled outside wearing only a sweater and thin knit mittens to hook up the car for me. She was outside for about 15 minutes before deciding she needed expert help. Soon a mechanic wearing ordinary coveralls and work gloves showed up and had the car running within 30 minutes. In the same weather I couldn't tolerate for more than a few minutes while wearing much thicker clothing. That experience elevated North Dakotans to the same mythological level of esteem I usually reserve for my fellow Texans, which is useful for embellishing our anecdotes.
    Anyway, the point of this rambling anecdote is that my personal experiences would have left me open minded to any opportunity or possibility for photographing whatever presented itself. But if I had set out with some preconceived notion of documenting only moments tinged with angst, despair, loneliness and indulgences in vices to ease the pain of existence... well... I might have found it less than inspiring.
    It's also entirely possible that, given my annoying bourgeois tendency to look for the ironic amid the seemingly mundane, I'd have returned with hundreds of postcard snapshots of the reconstructed Mandan village, hardy Nordic looking gals in mittens and weathered old fellers drinking coffee at Denny's.
    Our photos may reflect our personal experiences... only to ourselves and like-minded viewers. In turn we may project our experiences and emotions onto photos we view in ways never considered or thought of by the photographer. Existentialism and metaphysics are nothing if not ironic.
    Another of my favorite photographers, Roger Ballen, neatly avoids the existential dilemma (namely, the risk that someone might misinterpret our carefully cultivated photographic messages as mere snapshots) by framing his photos in the context of a personal mythology and language of symbols. We may not know what the hell he's saying, but he's sure as hell saying something.
  7. North Dakota is another country all together, Lex:)
    Yeah! for d'Agata. Yike! for soft water...
  8. "Do [photographs] reveal "meaning" or create "meaning"?"
    With or without my glasses on?
    Think of photographic "meaning" as the ball in a game of soccer. The ball creates something for everybody (the game, duh!), but it reveals something (different) for each player in the midst of the ongoing play. [I'm making this up as I go ... I'll stop now ... ]
  9. I am looking for meaning in my world through photographs. Do they reveal "meaning" or create "meaning"?​
    The main question would be if there is a meaning in your (or my) world. I think that's already a level of interpretation. I think what you're looking for is the meaning you give to the world, as you see it; it's arguable whether that is actually the meaning and whether there is one at all.
    But enough nitpicking. I do think that your own photos can reveal (in parts) to yourself things about you and how you look at your world. Your choice of subject, focus, angles, colour, framing may tell you something about how you position yourself towards your world, what you like included and excluded and so on.
    It does not create this meaning, as the meaning precedes the creation; it's you.
    There is a risk, I think, in looking too much for this - forcing an outcome and frequently hyper-charging the outcome. In my view, you need a rather substantial amount of photos to start catching that red herring that runs through them, and you need to remain open-minded. Watch, study, calmly, let it come. If you want to see something, you will find it. But that's a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it does not sound like that's what you're looking for.
  10. "What do you want a meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning."
    --Charlie Chaplin
  11. Yes, life is a desire and right now I desire meaning. Can I achieve that with my camera?
  12. Interesting reading. What do you take away from it? And is there a way you can apply these thoughts to your own photography?
  13. I need to develop a thematic genre I can call my own. Something that gives a purpose to my camera, meaning that affirms my photography and a rationalization that makes sense of those snippets of time each photograph captures. As I travel through time, my camera can capture the time I've lost - maybe forever? and maybe others can achieve vicarious pleasure through my photographs. It's a journey I'm on. The destination is secondary.
  14. <<<my camera can capture the time I've lost>>>
    That, to me, is a really interesting POV. Definitely worth exploring. One of the wonderful things about photographs is they are made, in part, by LEAVING STUFF OUT. That's what framing is about, at least in some aspects. Lost time seems like something on the periphery of everything we do. Of course, it is kind of looking at the glass half full. Because lost time is in some sense just time spent doing something else. But, the NOT of lost time, the what we are not doing, might very interestingly be photographically explored.
    In general, it seems to me, that what gives purpose to a camera gives purpose to the life of the guy or gal behind the camera. Or, probably more often the case, what gives purpose to the life of the guy or gal behind the camera gives purpose to the camera (or at least to the photos). For many, there's probably a dialog between photographing itself as purpose and photographing as the expression/conveyance/portrayal of other life purposes. My guess is that for the most significant photographers, there is a blending of the two that would be hard to separate.
  15. Just skimming the linked pdf it seems to me that Azoulay is broadening the overtly political arguments she made in The Civil Contract of Photography (2008). A nip from that book:
    " ... One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it. ... [C]itizenship is not merely a status, a good, or a piece of private property possessed by the citizen, but rather a tool of a struggle or an obligation to others to struggle against injuries inflicted on those others, citizen and noncitizen alike — others who are governed along with the spectator. The civil spectator has a duty to employ that skill the day she encounters photographs of those injuries — to employ it in order to negotiate the manner in which she and the photographed are ruled."
    "... Discussions such as these elide the gaze of the photographed subjects, which can vary enormously between sharp, probing, passive, exhausted, furious, introverted, defensive, warning, aggressive, full of hatred, pleading, unbalanced, skeptical, cynical, indifferent, or demanding. The photographed person’s gaze seriously undermines the perception that practices of photography and watching photographs taken in disastrous conditions can be described and conceptualized as separate from the witnessed situations."
    "... the sense of the photograph is subject to negotiation that unfailingly takes place vis-à-vis a single, stable, permanent image whose presence persists and demands that the spectators cast anchor in it whenever they seek to sail toward an abstraction that is detached from the visible and that then becomes its cliché."​
  16. +1 Bob T.
  17. Yes, life is a desire and right now I desire meaning. Can I achieve that with my camera?​
    Let me put it this way... for more years than I care to think about, I've worked in computers. I had a difficult time explaining to my friends and family what I did for a living, much less my bosses. I find that with photography, I have (with film at least) something tactile, something to show people... I made this.
    And while I didn't create the environment or the landscape or the people or even the situation -- I captured the moment. And to me, that's something.
  18. Purpose i.e. existential? A signifier of things? Both? We did a "purpose" topic and we're still chewing on "consciousness" . Photography has unique, seemingly magical capabilities, for sure, but the burden of providing existential meaning is too much to ask of what is essentially a process. Existentialist perspectives, mostly expressing the futility of seeking meaning, abound in film and literature. If it is important to have a more deterministic perspective there is no end to those because they are about magic as much as reason. To paraphrase Sartre and others -- our need to be true to ourselves -- be genuine-- is enough to drive us toward meaningfulness.
  19. An existentialist might not seek meaning (as in a meaning already there), rather he or she will seek to make meaning. Photography is a making (and a process). It is an activity. It is through what I do that meaning comes about. It is not a given. Seeking meaning, as if it's already there, could be a tough row to hoe. A proactive photographer, on the other hand, like any person who acts, will likely create meaning.
    "Commitment is an act, not a word." --Sartre
  20. In a word, no.
  21. “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
    Joseph Campbell
  22. Fred, Steve:
    Agree -- completely. I guess it comes down to faith and confidence in ourselves to believe we are creating meaning and to feel satisfied with our lives. Although, expressing that comes out rather like a platitude -- so what?
  23. Alan, in a sense, even satisfaction may be overrated. That's where desire probably comes into the picture. Desire and satisfaction snowball us through life.
  24. You want meaning, read Ecclesiates. In the meanwhile, give your photos as gifts to others and watch their smiles.
  25. “Yes, life is a desire and right now I desire meaning. Can I achieve that with my camera?”
    The default path to meaning is to procreate and find “meaning in the purpose” of nurturing the young—the desire to nurture one's young seems innate. So first one has to wonder if a desire for meaning has a biological origin and whether one should look first for something to love and nurture as a source of meaning. If, for what ever reasons, that is not a viable option then the next step would seem to be to consider if the desire for meaning can be evaporated or at least assuaged by intense reflection on the semantic emptiness of the concept of “meaning out side of one's inner responses and analysis.” The validity of the previous sentence depends, of course, on an empirical metaphysics.
    From that point of view the “real/realistic” question is whether you can create a sense of meaning for yourself through the use of a camera. And only you can answer that, and only by trying.
    As for meaning in art and its relationship to the artist you may find this of interest if you do not already know it, Duchamp's brief essay on "The Creative Act"
    This is a struggle I went through decades ago (in regard to another art) but can still empathize. In any case good luck.

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