When is a photograph made?

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I didn't see Lady Liberty right away. That's not to say I didn't see the real person standing in front of me at the Washington, DC Women's March. Rather, the moment of recognition came later.  One day a few weeks after it was shot, I opened the files of my work on the Mall in DC and suddenly this image caught my eye.  I’d passed over it before, not feeling moved by it.  But now the slightly bowed head of the woman in a foam Statue of Liberty crown, solemn against a background of other marchers, seemed important.  I went to work on the file, eventually showing a print of it at the gallery.  It's an experience we have all had, I think.  Going back through an old shoot, we run across an image that did not seem interesting at the time it was made and find it worthy of notice. It now seems to say something important.

Geoffrey Batchen, in a 2002 essay entitled "Taking and Making," asks, "When is a photograph made?"  He goes on to describe exactly the process I experienced with my image of Lady Liberty. Using examples of Alfred Stieglitz' and the Australian photographer Max Dupain's work, Batchen illustrates how negatives exposed at a time when they weren’t characteristic of the photographer's work are later incorporated into artist’s body of work and made public in a different phase of the photographer's career.  Batchen credits this phenomenon to changing artistic conventions. Stieglitz' work entitled Paula, or Sun Rays, Berlin, 1889, is illustrative.  In this image, Stieglitz' young lover sits at a table before an open window with strong sunlight coming through the blinds. The light leaves strong linear shadows on the wall behind the table at which the young woman is sitting and across her figure as well. Stieglitz' photos of her are pinned to the wall.  It is a decidedly modernist photo, taken at a time when Stieglitz was also advocating for the Pictorialist photographic movement. Although the negative was apparently made in 1889, the image was not printed nor displayed until about 1916 as far as we know. What happened in those intervening 27 years? Batchen proposes that as Stieglitz was exposed to examples of European avant-garde art, including the works of Rodin, Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse, his concept of what constitutes an artistic image changed. Exposure to contemporary works of art created a conceptual environment in which Stieglitz could return to the image of his young lover and now see it as an image of artistic interest that he included in subsequent shows of his work.  What changed?  The negative didn’t.  But the mind of the photographer did.  So, Batchen wonders, when was this work of art made?  Was it made at the moment of exposure or when Stieglitz had a conceptual framework in which to locate this image as a work of art?

There are varying answers to this question. Some photographers staunchly defend the concept of previsualization wherein the finished image is visualized prior to the shutter being opened. The photographer makes a number of decisions before any light strikes the film that allow him or her to produce as close a print as possible to what is seen in the mind's eye. For these photographers, we might assume that the photograph is made in that moment of exposure, preceded by a number of decisions aimed at replicating the photographer's vision and followed by actions such as developing and printing that make that vision concrete. In contrast, Brooks Jensen recalls an interview he did with Jerry Uelsmann in which he asked Uelsmann if he went out into the field with his camera already knowing what kind of composite image he wanted to make and therefore searching for the components of it. Uelsmann said no. Making exposures in the field was what he considered "gathering assets."  He goes out with his camera not with the intent of gathering the components of a pre-visualized image as much as recording things of interest that might then be combined to make one of the surrealist images for which he is so well known. For Uelsmann, it seems, the image is made not when the shutter is clicked but when the finished print emerges from the darkroom.

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Batchen's point that the changing conceptualizations of what constitutes art allow us to see anew is an important one. Photography is a visual language and learning to understand that language more deeply, and as it changes over time, opens the door to seeing things we would not necessarily have seen before. I made an image a few days ago that I would most likely not have made three or four years ago. I have become interested in the work of the New Topographic photographers and their contemporary followers.  Their work has led me to see "landscape" in a new way.  Now, the influence of human beings on the environment in which we live seems like a justifiable subject for photography. While walking with an old friend of mine, I saw a bright metal building, a cell phone tower, a shadowed wall with a tree beside it and, because I had the concept of a different kind of landscape available to me, I also saw an image that I felt was worth taking. Having grown up admiring the work of Ansell Adams, Edward Weston, and other more traditional landscape photographers, this is quite a change. No longer is pristine Nature the only fitting subject in the environment around us.

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There are other factors, perhaps less grand, that contribute to our ability to see images as time passes. What I believe happens under the circumstances - in addition to what Batchen proposes - is that the preconceptions we bring to the initial shoot loosen over time. I know I often come home from a session anxious to look at the images only to be flooded with a feeling of disappointment as I download them or as they emerge from the developing tank. What I see before me doesn't match what I had hoped for in the work that I was doing that day. The work doesn't fit my preconception.  However, after a day or two, or sometimes months, I begin to see the images in a new light. Some of them become interesting in ways I had not anticipated. This picture of a young couple who agreed to model for me is an example. While my preconception of the work with them wasn't well articulated prior to the session, it was certainly there. And when I saw what we had done, I was initially a bit disappointed. But as I looked at the images over several days, I let go of that preconceived notion of the work we were doing and saw what we had done with fresh eyes. That's when this image emerged. Had I not been able to loosen my conceptual grip, so to speak, I might never have realized the value that I now see in this lovely image of a woman embracing her male partner.

Finally, I believe, there is another way in which we recognize images. And that brings us back to Lady Liberty.  The Women’s March was an exuberant, irreverent, and energetic gathering of nearly 500,000 people on the Mall in DC.  I went with a photojournalistic intent, hoping to simply document the gathering, but soon found myself caught up in the spirit of it all.  I shot in color and was taken by the humorous signs and ingenious costumes of those we marched.  In the midst of it all, I glimpsed Lady Liberty in a moment of reflection and made a quick shot.  However, the image seemed out of place among the colorful, energetic images of the rest of the march.  It was quiet, solemn, and worked better in black and white. I set it aside and worked on other images.  Gradually, however, my own view changed.  The feeling of the day faded.  Other events led me to take a less hopeful view of what was happening in society.  Now the image of the woman on the Mall with her prayerful look and foam tiara held more meaning.  It became a photograph for me and not simply a file.  In some fundamental way, the images we make reflect our own consciousness, our own emotional state, and our own view of the world.  I would add that to Batchen’s understanding of when a photograph is made.  Photographs are also made when we recognize that the image in front of us reflects who we are.  The unanswered – and maybe unanswerable – question is, what leads us to take those images that we are not yet ready to see in the first place?  How do we know what we are not yet ready to know?

This essay first appeared in Shadow and Light Magazine, May/June 2017 issueIt is reprinted with permission of Shadow and Light.  You can purchase the entire issue in which this piece appeared here and can subscribe to Shadow and Light here