A thought: On Photographers and the Lonely

"...if love belongs to the poet, and fear to the novelist, then loneliness belongs to the photographer. To be a photographer is to willingly enter the world of the lonely, because it is an artistic exercise in invisibility." - Hanya Yanagihara, Loneliness Belongs to the Photographer, The New Yorker



In my experience with photography, photographers and photographs I have found it most often best to avoid broad and romantic statements about the nature of the medium. Photography is a tremendously complicated dialect within the even more complicated language of art which always seeks to avoid easy interpretation and categorization. Art is absurd. Photographs are absurd. They take the form of Polaroids and Jpegs, slideshows and coffee-table books, film photographs and scanned compositions written and rewritten by means of the darkroom, photoshop and the print. Some are meant to be taken at face value, others questioned and dissected for understanding and so it is naturally impossible to box them in with one broad quote.

Still there were always photographs which called to me subconsciously for their significance and perfection, photographs which reek with what Roland Barthes called "Punctum". Katey Grannan, Kristine Potter, An-My Le, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Joel Sternfeld to name a sum-what disparate group of image makers are all people who have created images which call to me through a punctum I have long sought to understand. After reading the words of Hanya Yanagihara I am prepared to make broad statements conservatively about that punctum, that is to speak about the loneliness of a  photograph and the photographer.

The claim Yanagihara makes is that photography inherently involves or invokes a degree of loneliness. That the placement of the camera and the observation of the world necessitates the negation of the photographer as an entity in favor of them as a conduit. "The photographer moves through the world, our world, hoping for anonymity, hoping she is able to humble herself enough to see and record what the rest of us- in our noisy perambulations, our requests to be heard- are too present to our own selves to ever see. To practice this art requires first a commitment to self-erasure."  

As a Buddhist and as an artist I have coupled with the difficulty inherent to dealing with the ego. 'Self-erasure' has been the natural way of working around this. I think that too often artists get caught up in artistic identity. This is all fine of course for the muti-media or performance artist whose entire life may become like an art piece but certainly frivolous when it comes to photographers and photographs. I would say, rather narrow-mindedly I admit, that I do not care for photographic artists whose biographies exceeds the level of interest invoked in the actual images. In this sense I am both biased towards and cautious of traditionally aesthetic bodies of work. I would say that I do love a good documentary project or even photo journalistic body of work but that I also take care to understand and appreciate the stuff I find myself initially drawn to reject. That being said those things aforementioned are usually my priority in creating work. I would like to create images which are both aesthetically interesting and intellectually stimulating rather than to create long webs of interconnecting complexity understandable only when the viewer understands me. 

To put it in shorter terms, I seek in my work to think of myself last and even to allow myself to disappear. Yanagihara might point to this as an act of martyrdom for the photographers art but to myself and most photographers this is the natural state of being. We seek to vanish, if not from the actual world than certainly from the eyes of our audience. We would like most for our audience to forget that we are separate entities and instead allow them to slip into our frame and see the world as we once did. This may be an act of destruction but I think also it is an act of creation in the Buddhist sense. This line of thought slips into my work often.

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There is, of course, another dimension to Yanagirhara's argument which lays namely in the longing to connect with the subject of a photograph. It is like the experience of looking into a photograph of a loved one who has passed in the hopes of finding comfort in memory. Of course anyone who has had this experience might understand what I mean when I say it is a painful one. We seek the comfort of memory and instead stumble upon the longing of distance. Photographs underscore our distance by simultaneously showing us the thing, the person or place, of desire and preventing us from actually seeing them, from touching them and being with them. They are like one-way mirrors in that no matter how long we stare into them we cannot actually convince the subject to budge not because they wouldn't want to but because they cannot look back and see us. 

I have had the experience of wanting to meet many strangers locked within the photographs of Katey Grannan or Irina Rozovsky and I can say for myself that that experience is usually met with a sad and lonely longing. Knowing that I may never have such an opportunity can be crushing both in the moment and in the existential scheme. I think that sometimes photographers photograph as an excuse to talk to strangers and to bridge the lonely gap we have constructed for ourselves. This can, unfortunately, also have the sad effect of isolating the image maker in space when the photograph is being taken as well as in time when it is being viewed later on. 

This argument may seem ultimately melancholy but I finish with a quote from the book Gift From the Sea that has me inspired this week.

“I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.” 
                                                                       ― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea




Read the article that had me inspired here: