While conducting an interview with photographer Doug Ethridge he mentioned that he doesn’t intellectualize as he’s shooting and lets his emotions dictate his imagery. I had asked him about the “overarching themes” in his work and I found his response to be a little surprising. I was trying to get him to speak more specifically about particular storytelling or things that happened to him. Conversely he was trying to keep his image making fresh by not over thinking it and letting the photos come to him. In retrospect I think we were saying the same thing, but not realizing it.
I firmly believe that all photography is practiced as an emotional exercise. From staid catalog shots of products to Joel Peter Witkin tableaux of amputees to Moholy-Nagy abstracts the thing that all photos have in common is the viewer’s ability to identify with the image in some way. This identification does not happen as an intellectual decision, it happens, I believe, on an unconscious and emotional level.
Take, for example, Huynh Cong Ut’s famous photograph of the young girl running naked toward the camera fleeing a naplam attack in Vietnam. The power of a photograph as a piece of art is that it affects our emotions. We feel what we imagine the subject feels which in turn sparks a myriad of personal feelings. This is why photographs are used so much for advertising and politics. They hit our brains in the same place as memories and dreams.
It’s this same emotional response that lets us as photographers know when we “got it”. It’s what Alfred Steiglitz called “Equivalents”. He experimented with the theory by photographing clouds in the sky. To paraphrase, the point of the “Equivalents” project was to make the viewer feel what the photographer felt when selecting the shot. Minor White believed that his photographs had a spiritual foundation to them for similar reasons. I would go further and suggest that it is all photographs produced that have this reciprocal, emotional element.
I believe that this is also the reason why photography will always be considered “real”, or based in reality, no matter how much it is manipulated by digital processes.
And maybe I do tend to over think things, but when I’m out hunting or brainstorming images they come to me, sometimes from out of nowhere. And when something hits me just right I grab it.