October 24, 2010

The triumph of ambiguity

One of the strangest things about looking at old photographs is that they’re not as
momentous or meaningful as I thought they’d be, “years from now”. It’s years
from then now, and they’re mostly a little forlorn, awkward, or just inscrutable.
“A photograph” Susan Sontag wrote in 'On Photography' “is both a pseudo
presence and a token of absence...” its “qualities and intentions swallowed up in
the generalized pathos of time past.” The photograph of Walter, because I knew
him, is missing so much more than it contains. The shot of Roberta doesn’t smell
like Roberta. And that skinny kid on the ladder... who is that? I feel no connection at all.

Paradoxically, photographs of people I don’t know and places never seen, or seen
in a new way, sometimes have an uncanny ability to evoke an emotional response
that images of my own people and places do not. They’re not as overtly drained of
the living nuance that seems better brought to life with simple memory. The
photograph of your 10th birthday party is fascinating to me, because it tells me
more than does the photograph of mine.

Maybe photography resonates most, especially in the hands of an ardent and
skilled observer, when it’s about nobody in general, and everybody in particular.
My journalistic stuff does stay fresh for me. There is endless potential in the
particulars of the glimpsed, not sapped by the accomplished facts of personal
history. It’s medium cool, as McLuhan would say: open enough to invite
participation, extrapolation, engaging memory and imagination in a way that our
personal photos, which are both oversaturated and poignantly wanting, never can.