Turning Inside Out The Still Image

If the blog piece, ‘Making Still,’ makes sense to you at least in some way, let me throw in a 180 curve, an about face. Let me expand the question and ask why any image at all? Some years ago I overhead two men in a restaurant talking about a golf game. Quite excitedly they described the course, shots on different holes, fighting the wind. This had been quite an emotional game for them. Only later did I realize they were talking about a computer game of golf. I thought how could this be better than standing on a real golf course and feeling a real wind in their face?

In fact, it wasn’t golf they were excited about but the computer game. Of course, computer games aren’t still, but it started me thinking that maybe the purpose of my photography should be to tell people not to look at my still images. I thought, should one of my images appeal to someone, I would like to suggest she or he pursue what is depicted in the image as better than the image itself. Leave go of the image. Pursue what appeals to you about the image. Pursue that. It is real. Acclaimed photographer Diane Arbus said that the subjects in her images were far more interesting than her images of the subjects.

Seeing is really an attitude or perception, that is, how our brain selects and interprets the stimulation of our senses. When we visit a gallery, well, the truth is the owner of the gallery wants our attention. Everything of the experience caters to us, our ego. The attention is on us, either for a public service of the great galleries or for our business as with the commercial galleries. In either case, the galleries cater to us. The art work is hung at a height suited to our viewing, distance is given for comfortable and ideal viewing. The temperature and quality of air is to our liking. We even are made to feel special for visiting. All of this caters to us, to our ego. All of it makes us the centre of the gallery experience.

Now it is true for a public gallery we pay admission, and it’s high enough to be a cost most of us feel. And the aura of a gallery does suggest that one is in some kind of temple. But you have to work at it. Most people go to special exhibitions and if they are good then a lot of people go, and the experience is more of a market fighting with others to get in front of the work or settling for looking through people. I like to go to an exhibition a few times. After the first viewing I’ll be first in line to get in when the art gallery or museum opens. Then I’ll walk well into the exhibition. That gives me time before the other people who start at the beginning of the show to catch up to me. I can be alone in a room for a while with some great art, all alone in the silence. Well yes a security guard comes with me but she or he is quite quiet! To get that different perspective, different relationship with the art, I have to work at it. In our society, it’s hard to not feel the experience is about me, about the viewers, art subservient to the viewers, not about the art.

The art is there for our viewing. In fact the research shows people spend only a matter of seconds viewing each work. One study found people spending twice as long reading the label than looking at the artwork. If instead it was difficult for us to view the art, if we had to work at it, overcome some difficulty, feel a bit uncomfortable, earn our way to see the art, then the art would appear to us differently. We would no longer be the centre of the attention in the gallery. Instead by having to pay a physical cost to see the art, we would in turn feel we were paying obeisance to the art; it would have primary place. If a work was, for example, in a 600 square meter room that was hard to find, a single work all on its own, hanging 6 meters off the ground, then our relationship to that art would be different; the art would take precedence, have more importance than us. Consequently, our attitude would be different, would see the art differently, not as something to please us, but in its indifference to us, in its own beauty indifferent to us, us seeing our relationship to it differently, it could then teach us about life, could then awaken us to something other than our own ego.

Yes, contemplating a landscape in nature surely gives more to us than contemplating a still image of a landscape. What can we say then? Let us say the images are our teachers, teaching us to see. The artist eye framing the image, sculpting the light, choosing line and colour, concentrates our eye, helps us to see better. Creative work provides us focus, shapes how we see, and so in viewing an image, what we see is how the artist has seen, the artist sharing that with us.

But perhaps our goal is to learn to see for ourselves, see the world as alive, see ourselves alive in the world, see that the tree itself has something to say to us, teach us. More than any image of a tree, a tree would itself speak to us of deep things, tell us of things as they really are. The image of a tree in its artistic concentration of meaning would point us to the subject, to the tree, so that we too might experience as the artist, to see the tree for what it is, and through that, not the art image but the tree itself, see ourselves for who we are.

By being attentive to the tree, by making the tree more important than ourselves, we might come to abandon belief in our superiority. Humans might then begin to see that nature is the wise one.

The still image is a bridge, telling us what we love, teaching us to be still, to listen. If the still image might give us the practice of stillness, of turning within, then in the stillness of the moment, the silence within us appears to us. Within that silence, only by coming to the silence we hold within, only there, in that place, the sages teach, do we find the whole of the world. To be with ourself within is to live inside the world. To be with ourself within is to listen to what wisdom the world has to tell to us. The world within, that experience of the world, is in fact the world itself. In contemplation of the world about us, we find our own story and our peace. Writes Thomas Merton, monk and poet, ‘what we have to be is what we are.’