Before I became a photographer, I was a musician. I went to college for music, and one of the pieces I studied in class was 4’33″ by John Cage. About the piece, Wikipedia says:
the three movements of [4'33"] are performed without a single note being played. The content of the composition is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, rather than merely as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence.
The piece is clever: have musicians sit quietly instead of playing music. The audience would begin to notice the sound of the air conditioning or water flowing through pipes. They would become aware of the quality of reverberations in an enclosed space as people nearby cough and clear their throats. Perhaps they would even question the differences between music and sound.
I was influenced by music that my professors deemed important, and the experimental music I wrote in college reflected those influences. I used software algorithms to modulate human input from MIDI controllers to create music that was unpredictable. It made for interesting conversations in my seminars but the compositions were awful to listen to.
But no matter how mind-blowingly clever 4’33″ was when it was composed in 1952, it didn’t move me in 1989. Yes, studying the piece affected my academic output, but its emotional impact could not compare to the joy I experienced listening to music by Vivaldi or Satie or Joy Division or the Talking Heads. It didn’t provide comfort by assuring me that there was a meaning for my existence.
Now close your eyes and imagine the experience of attending a performance of 4’33″. Could it mean as much to you as listening to Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos” or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or even Radiohead’s “OK Computer”?
Close your eyes again and imagine some photographs, closeups of crumpled paper money in different denominations.
Yesterday, Joerg Colberg from Conscientious posted a link to a blog post by Michael Mazzeo with some photos from a new project by Will Steacy. The photos are closeups of the portraits of US presidents on wrinkled paper currency. About the photographs, Mazzeo writes “Will Steacy addresses the subject of debt at a time when our nation is on the cusp of financial crisis.”
When you looked at the images in Mazzeo’s post, was the experience of viewing Steacy’s photos more enriching than just imagining the wrinkled money? The photographs don’t satisfy me because the work does not go beyond Steacy having an idea to photograph crumpled bills.
There is no subtlety, there is no composition, there is no light, there is no feeling — there is no life. These attributes are important to me, and while I realize people have different priorities in art, I hope that more fine art photographers will understand that it is still relevant to value these qualities in their own work.
As a fine art photographer, you decide how to make photographs. You choose the types of projects to work on. You can reveal yourself in your work or you can hide behind irony and detachment. You can choose to make empty conceptual photographs that reject visual language and the history of visual art, or you can make work rich in feeling and meaning, work that isn’t easily summarized and sold with a two sentence blurb.
Walker Evans, William Eggleston, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, Ray K. Metzker, Harry Callahan… the work of these photographers is personal, vital, reassuring. My photography may not be there yet, but I am confident that my heart is leading me in the right direction.