Let’s keep things simple: an exercise in reduction and redaction

Distillation. Stripping things down. Trusting your intuition. This is what this post is about. It is a topic which has been on my mind a lot recently. Not just with regards to photography, but my whole life, the world and everything (I like to think big). I’m talking metaphysical stuff, here.

Recently Alex and I had to make a tough decision. It was one of those crossroads moments, which forced us into thinking really long and hard about our future and that of our children, and ultimately deciding what we wanted that future to be. We were not ready to do this kind of thinking and to be honest it kind of brought us to a standstill. Either choice would set in motion a chain of events which would be life changing. Which path would we take? It was not an option just to ignore this thing that had reared its ugly head. I spent a lot of time thinking by myself, I talked to Alex, to family and friends, I made long lists of pros and cons, I cried (quite a lot)…. in the end though, exhausted and emotionally drained, I was still left with the decision which needed to be made: no-one else could do that for us. And that is quite a scarily big responsibility for someone who generally just likes to bumble along and go with the flow of life, happy to sway in whatever direction the wind is blowing me.

This time, however, I realised that I really did not want to sway. Things that sway are weak and fragile. I wanted to be a rock: immovable and solid. I listened to all the advice, and in the end I turned inwards. I tuned into the soundtrack of my body; the distant hum in the back of my head, the pounding echo of my heart, and the swirling swell of fluids in my intestines. Sometimes, it is braver to not do the thing that everyone expects you to do. Harder, definitely, but braver to stand still and face the force of the wind. So we are here, standing still, stronger (I hope), and ready to deal with everything that decision might throw up against us.

A while ago I read an article in The Guardian Weekend magazine by Oliver Burkeman about a way of thinking based around reducing everything in life to two things. (One is too few, three too many). Apparently it is possible to apply this two-rule thinking to every subject. I was immediately attracted to this idea given I have a tendency to overcomplicate things, and so have been attempting to practice it ever since. When it came to our decision-making I settled, in the end on the following two salient questions:

  1. Do we have to do this?
  2. Will it make us happier?

The answer to both questions turned out to be no, and after that, the decision was fairly straightforward.

So, now I’m going to take a little diversion (sorry, this is a long one, but I need to get it all out, and I promise I won’t lose you along the way – I’ll deliver you right back to the start when we’re done). I’m turning back to photography in order to attempt to illustrate this point in a different way. To Polaroids, by Walker Evans, in fact.

I have to admit that this is a book I have been itching to write about ever since I started this blog, partly because I feel like these images convey so much of what I want to say about seeing and being and phenomenology and all that, but partly also because I just love them. I don’t own many photobooks, but this is one I really treasure. Every so often I get it out and look at it and it gives me immense pleasure. I feel like I’m feeding my eyes with those little 3 inch squares; they are like visual poems to me.

So, before I talk about why I choose to write about it, here is a little bit of background about the book itself:

Towards the end of his life, tired and physically frail, Walker Evans decided to put his fading energies into one last photographic project using the Polaroid SX-70. He photographed everyday things around him (as was his style): found objects, road signs and road markings, churches, buildings, work colleagues and friends.

(by the way sorry about the slight texture and glare on the images. I had to photograph them from the book as I don’t have a scanner to hand)

What he liked about using the Polaroid camera and the images it produced was that they allowed him to look at the world with a renewed clarity. Uncluttered by mechanics and unburdened of the chore of having to process and print his images, he found a new impetus. The images he made were honest, without pretence. The simplicity of the medium and aesthetic freed him – both physically and mentally – and he was able to enjoy making pictures again with his new ‘toy’. In the forward to the photobook Jeff L.Rosenheim describes its effect on him as thus:

The camera’s instant prints were for the frail artist what scissors and cut paper were for the aging Matisse: the catalyst for a new, provocative, chromatically elemental, yet profoundly inventive body of work.

Evans was quite clear though, that it is important to ‘do all that work’ before attempting to turn to Polaroid making:

It reduces everything to your brains and taste… you have to know what you’re pointing it at, and why – even if it’s only instinctive

I think what he is saying is that you first need to develop your viewpoint as a photographer; train your eyes (practice, lots), if you like, before you should be let loose with a Polaroid camera. Partly because there is no skill involved in taking a picture, it takes a whole lot of skill to know what to point it at.

In his excellent book Introduction to Phenomenology, Robert Sokolowski explains how phenomenology can help us to deconstruct perception as layers of meaning, both “actual and potential” (p.20). Though an object is whole in one sense, it is also made up of “layers of differences”. The object (he uses the faces of a cube as an example) is both a ‘whole’ and a sum of its parts at the same time. Or, we could put it another way and say that things inherently contain objectivity as well as subjectivity, which we project onto them. So a tree can be a whole tree, but it is also its branches, leaves, or whichever part we care to focus on and choose to use to represent as ‘tree’. This is because when we look at a branch or a leaf we understand that it has come from a tree, so a tree can be a tree in its complete whole entirety, and it can also be represented by its independent entities (p 23).

I think that this is what we do when we point a camera lens at something; we make a selection – we play with perspective and viewpoint. We are able to select a piece or part of an object and effectively bracket it from its whole entity to suit our own (subjective) purposes. I may choose to photograph a flower but I would not necessarily choose to photograph it in the same way as another photographer; whereas I may decide to take a close up of a petal, another might photograph the whole thing, or find a different perspective (from above, from below) dependent on our personal style and what meaning we are attempting to convey.  We, then as photographers, like phenomenologist, are continually searching and scanning to see the detail of our world from different angles to try to understand our place in it a little better.

Pieces, then, are parts that can become wholes. (p.23)

These ‘pieces’, however, are to be distinguished from ‘moments’ which, on the other hand, cannot be detached from their whole. They are “nonindependent parts”. Sokolowski uses colour as an example of a ‘moment’. It cannot exist independently of its attached object or surface. This is true but of course, in reality, a photographer can very easily take the colour red say from a wall which is painted red and appropriate it. We may not know that ‘red’ was actually a painted wall but the photographer has, by means of selection and framing, created something other; a new object: the material surface of a photograph.

Framing and perspective then are useful both on a practical and conceptual level here. What Evans’ final work teaches us is that finding new ways of seeing and looking – which might involve limiting our viewpoint instead of expanding it – for some time can inspire an abundance of creativity. Those words: “It reduces everything to your brains and taste” are key here. This body of work is an example of the absolute distillation of a lifetime of seeing and devotion to the purity of form.

There is something about limiting your perspective which I think can paradoxically be incredibly liberating and incredibly productive for photographers (but I think also in all creative mediums). And I believe it is not only a useful but even an essential undertaking in a world which delivers an intense saturation of input to our overwhelmed and overstimulated brains. We really need to find ways to sift and sort and filter out the nuggets of gold amongst the grit. We need to order and organise by way of form. It is both a comfort and a necessity to turn our backs on the onslaught occasionally and just clear our minds, reduce everything to what is essential.

In my own photographic practice snapping I have limited myself to using just one lens for the past two years (a 40mm prime lens). I have got so used to it that I have forgotten what it is like to have the luxury of different lens choices. Although I have to admit it was partly an economically driven decision, there was also a curiosity to see how it would challenge my eye. I have mostly found that, even though there are situations when the lens doesn’t really work for me, it has made me train my perspective to find alternative shots that work for the lens. So I am thinking about my image making more, being more creative, but I also don’t feel the need to take lots and lots of pictures all the time. This is the double-edged sword which digital photography brings with it: you can just keep on snapping, indefinitely… and I’m not really sure if that’s a good thing. When we are taking pictures we also need to know when to stop taking pictures. We need to train our eyes to know when to curb the flow and take that finger off the shutter, and sometimes just look, experience… just think about what we are doing a bit more.

Post prodction too, concision is essential. I think it is a useful life skill, not just good practice for creatives. We need to learn to pare things down to the bare minimum, to apply filters and alter our perspectives sometimes, and most importantly we need to edit, edit, edit ruthlessly and then, like an ironmonger forging a piece of metal with hammer and anvil, the sparks of impurity will fly away and what is left will stand stronger, purer, more authentic.

I guess the irony in all of this is that, as Evans pointed out, you do need to go through the process to get to that point of clarity. You need to “do all that work” first. And that for him was his life’s work. But of course that doesn’t make what he did before obsolete. The point is that it is an evolution; a constant sea change of refinement. In truth this discipline of redaction and reduction is not something that comes naturally to me. I tend towards verbosity when I write, and I find it desperately hard to step outside of my world-in-my-head and project some kind of coherent purpose out there (and of course time is always an issue). But this blog is a starting point, and definitely a positive one, I think.

Every subject can be reduced to two things.

So what would my two things be for the subject of photography?

The light, and the eye. Well, that’s all you need, right?

To finish, here is an instagram I snapped the other day (are instagrams the new Polaroids? I guess that’s a debate for another day). It’s a picture of a part of a skip. I thought it was kind of Walker Evans-esque, so a fitting final moment.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with my two things? What would yours be?

Texts: Polaroids by Walker Evans (with forward by Jeff L. Rosenheim), Scalo, Zurich, 2002
Introduction to Phenomenology by Robert Sokolowski, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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