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Something I Haven’t Imagined Seeing Before

Our guest blogger today is Stefan Petranek, Assistant Professor at Herron School of Art & Design and judge for the My Snapshot online competition.

Robert Brown, “Concession Stand,” posted on the My Snapshot website.

When I look at “Concession Stand” by Robert Brown I am reminded of artist John Baldessari’s commentary about one of his favorite found photographs. He was mesmerized about a particular film still image he had bought because of what it didn’t show him, and thus what it left open to interpretation. We are seduced by several different factors in photographs, but one often overlooked by the amateur and sometimes even the professional is what is left out. One of my old photography professors has a farm in Vermont. He used to joke with us that he practiced reductive farming, only choosing what plants to remove and leaving the rest. He may not be a very good farmer but photography, especially the kind where one goes around with a camera hunting for a good image, is just this sort of reductive process.

For Brown’s image we are given a title and a very open-ended scene. We see the silhouette of a woman with her hat off, raised to one side, interrupting a distant view of some indiscriminate low lying building. There is just enough detail in the shadows of the foreground to see evidence of some candy bars, which I latch onto because it makes the title of the image ring true. Sometimes not enough context can cause us to lose interest, to throw up our hands and say, “and…” But this image saves itself from that fate because it sets up just enough of a narrative that our imagination (or at least mine) is kicked into gear. There are lots of questions streaming though my mind: Is it a woman? Why does she have her hat raised just so? And where are we? Am I inside the stand looking out or outside looking in? And that view is so bleak, yet intense. It could be any non-descript location, but the vagueness of the scene is disorienting and it makes me feel like this moment was captured just before something consequential was about to happen. It’s akin to a cinematic ploy where everything seems too ordinary and hum drum, so the tension in you rises because you know something will have to happen soon. This type of internal visual game (if you will) captured my interest, and that of course is the goal for all of us lens-based artists.

Another thing we are always looking for in the photographic image is quite simply to see something new. But what does new really mean? It doesn’t just mean “something I haven’t seen before,” but more precisely “something I haven’t imagined seeing before.” I, for example, haven’t seen most photos of peoples’ cats on Flickr, but if I did they aren’t likely to seem new to me. Nothing against anyone’s kitty pics of course, we all have them, but a big part of creating a photograph with staying power is offering the world a picture that it has not thought about or otherwise witnessed before. Now you are probably thinking, “well, what’s left to take a picture of then.” Its not just what is being photographed that determines if something is new, it’s also how you photograph it. For example, we have been drawing, painting and photographing trees for ages, but there are individuals that still find ways to render a tree so that when we look at it, it still feels authentic and distinct.

The three images below from the My Snapshot photo competition particularly contain this newness for me:

Genevieve Borden, “Poetry in Motion.” From the My Snapshot website.

Mili Walker, “Rabbit Hole.” From the My Snapshot website.

Tony Elliott, “Dubai Skyline.” From the My Snapshot website.

One type of image that we tend to gravitate towards is that which captures some notion of the sublime. Ideas of the sublime have been around since the mid eighteenth century so it’s meaning is complicated, but in short the sublime connotes that which is beyond our comprehension. Visually this tends to mean images that seem surreal or otherworldly. It’s also a term that historically has been associated with our perception of the natural world and thus is often brought up when discussing images that deal with both the awe and terror nature is capable of producing.

So I would argue that these three images by Genevieve Bordon, Mili Walker, and Toni Elliott respectively, generate their newness from their ability to depict notions of the sublime. It’s quite clear how “Poetry in Motion” fits in, rendering this amazing moment at the end of the day where birds in flight find passage between the ground and looming clouds of black overhead. “The Rabbit Hole” follows similar pursuits rendering the sky as something otherworldly, simultaneously beckoning and foreboding. “Dubai Skyline,” perhaps surprisingly for some, also falls into this category for me because it visualizes this unending pristine cityscape, one that almost looks virtually manufactured rather than real. Perhaps it is just because I am not familiar with Dubai’s skyline, but I have the same reaction to this image as when I see space cities depicted in Star Wars films. There is something unbelievable about its seeming perfection, which tugs me in the two directions of amazement and fear of what perfection might actually look like.

Filed under: Art, Audience Engagement

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