The Segmented Essay: The Photograph

Sculpture by Henri Moore

By Dave Hood

What is a photograph? It is a representation of reality, and expression of the creative impulse, an abstraction of an object or thing, an illusion of sensory details, a manipulation of pixels into art.

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The photograph is evidence of my observations.

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The photograph is an entry of a passing moment in my life journal.

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Ansell Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph. You make it.”

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The photographic image is presented to the public in many ways: It is mounted, framed, hung on a wall in an art gallery. It is edited in the digital darkroom and printed in a magazine or art book. It is captured with a smartphone and emailed to friends and family. It is upload to social media, such as Facebook, becoming a feature of our constructed public persona. It is digitized and printed in a eBook, catalogued in a family album, displayed on a side table in the living room, anchored to a bulletin board with a thumb tack.

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Edward Weston captured film-based landscape images as fine art. Julius Shulman snapped film-based images of architecture. Arnold Newman rendered portraits of people. Helmut Newton took provocative photographs of beautiful, sensual women, posing naked. Gary Winogrand pointed his lens at the banality and daily routines of the street and then pressed the shutter release. When he died, he left 2500 roles of unprocessed film.

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The film-based camera is now an artifact of our past. Soon, it will be on display in museums around the world.

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With the invention of the digital camera, everyone who owns a smartphone, point-and-shoot camera, digital SLR’s, is now a photographer.

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Every day, a tidal wave of photographic images are created, shared around the world via email, posted on social media, such as Facebook, Google, Flickr. It’s estimated that 1.3 billion photographic images are created every day.

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The best photographic images embody some “critical observation.”

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My photographs are evidence of what I’ve observed in my life.

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Susan Sontag wrote that “all photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

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A serious photographer has a vision and style, which are expressed in every photograph. Often, the serious photographer captures the art of life. On the other hand, the novice takes snap shots. There is not much thought in a snapshot.

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To take a memorable photograph, the digital photographer determines the desired lighting effect, selects the lens, adjusts aperture and shutter on the camera, composes the elements within the frame, and presses the shutter. Afterwards, the photographer edits or enhances this image in the digital darkroom, and then presents it to the masses for public consumption.

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Most people don’t know what is a good photograph.

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Photographer and author Michael Freeman writes that a good photograph does the following:
1.It is taken by a skilled craftsman who understands how to use the features of a camera.
2.It stimulates and provokes some reaction in the viewer.
3.It embodies an idea. For example, a photographic image of a jogger captured as motion blur represents “physical fitness.”
4.It has an a deeper meaning. For instance, a golden leaf is a representation of autumn, which is symbolic of aging and change.
5.It fits within the cultural context of a society.
6.It is true to its medium. In other words, the photograph is not a painting or a sculpture.

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In the last century, an aspiring artist named Marcel Duchamp said that “anything can be art.” He took a photograph of a urinal, titled it “The Fountain,” and then said it was “art.”

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Not all photographs are art. For instance a snapshot is not art. Nor is a cliched photograph.

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“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”—Susan Sontag

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What is a cliched photograph? It is a photographic image that has been captured countless times. It has lost its originality and freshness. It is unable evoke a “wow” reaction. For instance, a sunset is a cliched photograph. Clichés are not art.

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Irving Penn avoided the cliched photograph of the cigarette by creating fine art. His still life photographic images of cigarette butts adorn the walls of collectors and are on display in art galleries.

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The other day, I saw an exhibition of photographic images by Edward Burtynsky, who takes fine art photographs of man’s degradation of the environment. He’s taken many large-format photographs of mine tailings, a junk yard of used tires, railcuts, quarries, homesteads. His images are also fine art, sold as prints to the masses.

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Henri Cartier Bresson said that the best photographs are captured at the “decisive moment.” The photographer has a fraction of a second to see and compose and press the shutter. In this fleeting moment, the photographer can capture the most memorable rendering or miss an opportunity that is gone forever. All that remains for the photographer and the world is a memory, without proof.

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Diane Arbus, famous for snapping a photograph of a boy holding a toy pistol said: “For me, the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture.”

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The documentary photograph comments on the nature of humanity. The archives are filled with black and white images of man at war. I’ve seen a photo of mushroom cloud, created by the atomic bomb exploding in the city of Hiroshima. I’ve also seen photographs of people vaporized by this explosion.

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Richard Avedon, a famous portrait photographer of celebrities and public figures, once said, “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

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What is a fine art photograph? It is a printed photograph, embodying aesthetic appeal, especially beauty.

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In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art put on its first exhibition of photographs, displaying on its walls 100 black and white images of “ordinary American people and their popular culture” by Walker Evans.

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Contemporary photographer, Jeff Wall, stages a scene and then takes photographs. His manipulated images were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art.

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You can take a photograph anywhere–on the moon, floating in space above the earth, on a sunny day at the beach, as a witness of war; in the studio where a beautiful woman lies naked; watching a polar bear in the ice and snow of the Arctic; at night in the dark where there’s glitter from the lights of the skyscraper; in the living room of your home, celebrating your mother’s 80th birthday….

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The photograph captures a memory we wish to remember or forget.

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Many people take photographs of family, friends, birthdays, special occasions, weddings. These photographs are then sorted into photo albums, becoming proof of human life. They are records of our lives. For some, they are a legacy. For others, a life of pain and suffering.

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I know a woman who her vintage photographs in tattered cardboard boxes in the dusty and musty basement. They are like a once read and enjoyed novel that now sits on a bookshelf, forgotten, collecting dust.

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My mother took countless photographs with an film-based camera. She has shoeboxes full of black and white photographic images of family and friends. Now she is 80, and had no desire to learn how to use the digital camera or take photographs of us. She says, ” I have enough snapshots.” What will become of her snapshots when she’s gone?

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What will become of your photographs? A century from now, they will be deleted from the “digital cloud,” deleted by social media, deleted from smartphones, tossed into the garbage, replaced by something new. And so, evidence of a particular human life will be forgotten or obliterated.

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Arnold Newman, the famous portrait photographer, once said, “We do not take photographs with our cameras, we make them with our hearts and minds.”

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We try to grab pieces of our lives as they speed past us. Photographs freeze those pieces and help us remember how we were. We don’t know these lost people but if you look around, you’ll find someone just like them.—Gene McSweeney

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Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.—Henri Cartier Bresson

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What is a photograph? It is evidence that I live mindfully, a memory I choose to hold on to, an entry in my journal, a request to be recognized, the embodiment of my creative spirit.

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About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
This entry was posted in Collage Essay, Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay, Photographs, Segmented Essay and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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