How things were is not necessarily how they are. And how things are is not how they will be. So much of life is caught up in the now, what we want this instant, food, a drink, to read a book, to watch a show, a new movie, to see how the Supreme Court ruled, or will Europe finally implode, or, what did my friend’s cat cough up on Facebook?
Photographers are all obsessed with the now. We spend our time looking for moments where the world all seems to align in a strange perfection of nowness, so we can be there to witness it, capture it, pin it like a butterfly and ask others “look… see!”
It’s so difficult to remember that the photographs we create today, in all their multitudes, aren’t really for today, or even tomorrow or next week, or next year. They ferment over decades, and a transfiguration occurs. Even the most pedestrian snapshot carries within it not only the specific description of a time and a physical reality that no longer exists, but also the accumulated historical knowledge of all that has passed since that brief moment.
You can look at an Instagram of your children made yesterday or last week or even a few months ago, and it has a certain, although mild, psychological impact on you. Now, imagine opening a box of snapshots of those same children that are five or ten years old. The impact is considerably more dramatic, and can often bring one to tears.
So, does “art photography” exist in some space outside of the psychological impact of time? Yes and no. I think the finest of photography has a quality of timelessness — of being of indeterminate age and origin — that deepens its mystery.
Photographers are also obsessed with meaning, and this is really my point. Most spend tremendous amounts of time — and some engage in elaborate psychological contortions — in an attempt to assign values and interpretations to their photographs and those of other photographers. But value and meaning is welded to time and human experience. At one time, people valued salt and gave it great commercial significance. Then people realized that it exists in practically unlimited quantities. There was a time when no one valued the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and he died in despair. Obviously, people now assign great value to his art!
We as photographers think “is this art?” and most of us rightly consider if our work could possibly add anything at all to the incredibly rich history of the medium. But it’s not for us to decide, is it? It seems to me you have to do the work you are called to do, move forward slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, and let time work its magic.
You may die and the estate sale people dump your entire life’s work into the 1-800-Got-Junk? bin. Or, your work could end up on the wall at The Met.
The photographs aren’t for you, they are for others. We too often forget that.