The majority of writing on photography, not including ‘how-to’ manuals, is on photographs. It involves the deconstruction of an image, the search for messages and meaning within a picture created within the fraction of a second. It aims to place that image within a political, economic or social context, occasionally within the photographers broader body of work but always from the perspective of the writer rather than the photographer themselves.
That perspective comes with its own issues, the writer did not create the image, they were not present when the image was created and they do not live inside the mind and body of the photographer. It is therefore a perspective of opinion and assumption, of belief and imagination. To support such opinions many writers turn to the writing of others to provide a sense of communal agreement. Occasionally they may quote the photographer directly as part of their construct of argument, but this is invariably in short bursts included to progress the theory of the author. This is the role of the critic and the academic seeking to project their own experience and beliefs onto the work of others.
There are rare times when such writing brings insight and understanding, however it can also bring neither of these as it falls into an intellectual exercise with no connection to the work being discussed. Such writing becomes a means to an end for the writer, fulfilling an agenda far from that of the photographers whose image or images are being used to illustrate the writing. The image may be the starting point for a thought process but that process can become the dominant factor as rabbit holes are travelled down and the search for the rabbit is forgotten.
In seeking understanding I always look for the expert, not the opinionated. In the case of photography I believe the expert to be the photographer who created the image. It is the photographer whom I want to hear from to understand the work. That is one of the reasons why I ask photographers to explain what photography means to them every week on the A Photographic Life podcast without my interruption.
I do not want to lead or influence the witness, I want to remove myself from that process of introspection. What I think is of no importance, what they think and say is.
I therefore do not write about photographs. I have done on a very few occasions but only if I feel that I have some specific insight to share. I will never write or talk about anything that I do not have knowledge or understanding of. To hold an opinion worth sharing requires extensive research and experience, to not have these reduces the opinion to misplaced ego or misinformation at best.
Some of the most engaging and interesting writing I have read about photographs has been written by the photographers who created them or those who have dedicated their lives to understanding the photographers and not just the photographs. That have gone deep into the why, how, when and where of the photographers life experience that informs the work created. This takes time and commitment and cannot be found in the writing of others quickly and easily, it is not an easy fix of theory application.
There are too many photographs that I admire, enjoy and respect for me to ever be able to spend the time required to provide a written response of value. I therefore do not attempt to do so. I read those who are good at doing it; John Berger, Robert Hughes, Matthew Collings and Geoff Dyer are a few that I turn to for their writing. The rest of the time I seek out the maker explaining the making.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a podcaster, BBC Radio contributor, filmmaker, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021