Philosophy of Art

The Philosophical Art of Photography

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The Philosophical Art of Photography

What happens in the moment that an image is captured? Does it sense it will last forever? We see the world as fragments of action interspaced between the darkness of the closing of our eyes. What exists within the time it takes to blink. The camera can see… Or so it may seem. The best photography is that which takes what you have seen before and locks it into its moment of life forever. Why is it new to us this oak tree we have seen before, or the friend we have known since childhood? Because it is still, and the camera has made it so. Our eyes can try to blink away the image all it wants but time will not change this thing now captured in the gloss or on the screen.

We must confront it as a reality and not just as a moment of potentiality in flight before our eyes. We have the terrible gift of being able to ignore even that which is shoved right into our faces. All we need do to avoid even the most horrid of scenes is to close our eyes or turn away. If the eyes are the only victim of an abominable act then it alone of our perceptions can choose to ignore it or re-interpret it as something merely passing the world by. A gun pulled on an unarmed Vietnamese man. We can run away from this horrid spectacle, we can turn away, we can make this abuse just another of many that we lock away in our minds in order that we can confuse them, forget them, misrepresent them to ourselves even. We saw this man being shot yes, but only for a moment, and this moment soon passed. We will mourn the man for a while, but we will not mourn the moment for it is gone. It might as well have never happened. Then only remnant exists as a flash of something before the eyes.
Our minds are like a camera yes, but it takes pictures that never develop into anything solid or final. They are ideas, and not tokens of true happenings. We can twist overexpose the picture, re-color it, make it black & white whenever the need suits us. Of course this can be done with any normal photograph, but we must remember that the camera in our heads is not a machine designed to find the truth of an image: it is designed to find a way to cope with the image. It becomes our, and is thus taken from the realm of real things into the world of conjecture and justification. You are the composer and the audience for this art, and it is an experience that is shaped by you, for you, essentially about you. That fleeting mental snapshot you took of that Vietnamese man is nothing more then a potential act, a ghost of simple truth that either was or was not. It could go either way. Because in the camera of your mind the image is not frozen, it lives and can be manipulated to appear in any number of ways. The man is shot, and the photo in your head morphs to express this potential reality. The man escapes, and the gun to the head suddenly fades because it does not really matter anymore.

But a true camera, wielded by a real photographer… Ah that is something else altogether! When the photographer sees the world through the third eye of the view finder the world he sees is a vision of silence and still. Again there is that man with the pistol press firmly to his temple. The photographer may want to look away, or he may not, but it does not matter. He uses his third eye because he wants to see what two are not enough to see. The finality of the moment is explored through the glass, this scene is an end unto itself it began and ended at the same time. It is nothing more then everything it never was or will be. The shutter clicks and the image is swallowed into a nexus of flash and burn: into a glossy piece of paper or onto a memory ship. Either way the finality is assured. The history of the moment is preserved forever in its endless entirety. Now, the artist takes the image and puts it out for all to see and to contemplate. Something is amiss to our ever searching minds. There is no fluidity to this moment, no beginning and no end. There is only a silence and a still that seems to grow more terrifying with ever moment. This is not a moment out of time: this is time, unyielding and pure, endless and without beginning. This is the horrific beauty we must confront. We can look at the photograph and pretend that the gun never touched this poor man’s head. We can pretend that he escapes and runs away to a life we will never see. We can easily pretend that the man died and the potential of the gun is fulfilled. We can pretend to change the image in our minds, we can blink it away, we can turn away from the picture… But it does not change. It never changes, and it never will.

Unlike the products our own mental cameras this images are immutable. We cannot change them without destroying them. In our head we have the power to take a picture of a moment and change in any way we please, and it becomes a new thing without ever having been changed: it is our moment, we took it, and we can control it. But this thing… this frozen stillborn eon beyond our ability to control. We can deny and pretend all we want, we can read epics into every inch of meaning we perceive. We can create a history for the photograph, a future and a past… But it all means nothing in the end. The image will not yield, the moment will not pass. The endless still and silence will only grow deeper as time passes around it. Whatever moments came before or after… They are as alien and meaningless as photographs never taken. Why… where was the camera when the bullet entered his brain? It was gone or would have had another simple story to tell. The moment was written into time, and yet it never amounted to anything more then what it ever was: a moment. That is all. Only cameras can tell us where we are at any given time. The pictures they take are moments we may have missed, or moments we may never be able to forget. But they are self-contained, immutable, and solid. They are locked forever in a world with out a past or future, without a beginning or any end. Time does not matter to the photograph… Only silence, and still.

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7 thoughts on “The Philosophical Art of Photography

  1. Doug Newman says:

    Very nice meditation on photography. As a photographer, I appreciate it.

    But please, insert breaks between your paragraphs … it’s rather hard to read otherwise.

  2. Matt Mucci says:

    I didn’t know you were a Humanist. I knew there were other atheists in our class, but I never knew you were. Holy Cow! I recently became a humanist after I went through a long and dark depression and began reading Kurt Vonnegut’s works.

  3. nme16 says:

    That is great Matt! I’m really glad that turning to humanistic ideas helped you through a dark time. It has sure helped me!

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