Expecting the unexpected

When it comes to a photograph, God forbid if anybody is caught doing anything that lies outside a very narrow band of expected responses.

Colin Pantall: You don’t look like a victim

If any of the things we see don’t suit us, guess who is to blame? It’s never us, it’s always the photographer. It’s never the fact that we want to see certain things, it’s always that someone else is not showing us what we want to see.

Joerg Colberg, reacting to Pantall

That good photos tend to feature only those things which lie outside a very narrow band of expected responses is the gorilla in the room here. Anyone serious about photography is trained to look for the unexpected.

There is no such thing as photographic truth. Photographers are always going to be looking for that hook, that special something which makes this photo stick out. Same with editors. It’s not just about Errol Morris’s elephant outside the frame, it’s also about all the other routine frames which didn’t make the cut because they’re boring.

Expected responses are boring.

Unexpected responses are interesting.

In both cases, it’s all about the editing. Which suggests that we may be better off thinking of a lot of photography as propaganda. Rather than expecting some sort of truth, we need to be aware of  the agenda behind how the photos are presented whether it’s someone like Vivian Maier or Francesca Woodman being edited into the canon of artists or if we’re looking at government documents which have been curated to create a new story.

All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth. I don’t think this matters so long as one knows what one is doing, and why.

George Orwell

The “as long as one knows what one is doing and why” clause is the catch here. Most of us don’t really know either of those when it comes to photography and so don’t have our minds working to determine what the agenda is. As a result, we tend to take the bait and are caught by whatever the agenda of the editor is.

The offhand dismissal of family snapshots as being casual and unposed when they tend to be the most-posed and edited of all photos we deal with is a case in point. Family photos are taken and edited for a very specific purpose and they generally all tell the same story—namely that this is a functional family where everyone is happy.

We’re used to the simplistic narrative since we do it to ourselves. If we see a photo which shows us something which doesn’t suit us, it’s often because it’s being presented with the point of provoking a response by presenting a different simplistic narrative. One which typically contradicts the narrative we expect. Or its hook is combining elements which we don’t expect to see together—at which point we get to fight over what simple narrative we should assign to the image.

It’s encouraging to see a number of blogposts pointing out that fighting over the image is a losing battle. We need to be looking at how the images are selected and thinking about how those selections challenge and provoke us. It’s not whether we like or agree with the image, it’s about being honest with our reactions and figuring out where those reactions comes from.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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