06 February 2006

Seen or staged; sought or found?

A few weeks ago, when I was too pressed for time to think about them properly, I was asked three related questions in two days about images in my Today series.

The first related to the series in general, (though prompted by 060119):

"I wonder whether the photo is simply a product of your eye, and brain, noticing and photographing, or whether you staged the scene for the photograph."

That was from Jim Putnam; it was a passing comment in a larger context which led on to another conversation about action vs mentation in creativity, and thence to his post on being "in the zone". I replied briefly that it was an interesting question (which it is) but not a simple one (which it isn't), and I would return to it; here I am, returned.

On the same day, though a few hours later and with reference to the earlier posts 060114 and 060115, came this in the same vein from Allaitz Valverdi:

"How far do you seek, and how far happen upon, such images?"

Then, two days later, from Dirk Dusharme in response to 060121:

"How do you come up with these ideas?"

Ursula K Le Guin has, on several occasions, written very effectively about where ideas come from. I acknowledge my debt to her (in so many things and ways, this amongst them), though I can't immediately remember the particular sources I have in mind. She gives the question more respect than Harlan Ellison, who calls it "the dumbest question" and answers that his ideas come from Schenectady at twenty five dollars the half dozen. Ellison's answer is amusing and, in its way, as accurate as any other, but Le Guin's respect is the more useful response ... because the question is not dumb at all. Perhaps some of Ellison’s (and Le Guin’s) questioners are lazy, trying to piggyback their way onto a fast ride with someone who’s already made the journey, but the question itself is in many ways one of the most important for any worker in creativity. The different approaches illustrate larger differences in philosophy: Ellison demonstrates his adherence to the action school, Le Guin her membership of the mentation camp.

My reply to Dirk was that in most cases I don’t have ideas at all – in the context of the Today series, at least. And in a way that, I suppose, also answers Jim and Allaitz as well. The Today pictures are images which have happened to me, so to speak. I accordingly gave Jim the stop gap reply that “no Today picture is ever staged in the terms that I understand that word to mean”.

Those replies are fine as far as they go, but leave a lot of other questions hanging. One of them being: what exactly constitutes “staging”? The more I think about that, the less certain I become. Here are some examples (I emphasise “some” – there is an infinite range of others) from a spectrum of approaches to a photograph. I have used Today image 060119 as the example, for consistency, but it could be anything.

  1. Taking a neoDadaist approach, I attach a random timer to the camera. I sling the camera over my shoulder, and forget about it. It automatically takes photographs at unpredictable intervals as I go about my day. One of these photographs shows my reflection in the silvered rear window of a van, against the background of a leafless and frequently pollarded tree.
  2. I am crossing the road. As I pass behind a van, I notice my reflection in the silvered rear window of a van, against the background of a leafless and frequently pollarded tree. Without breaking my stride, I lift the camera to my eye and snap the image.
  3. I am crossing the road, etc, etc. On noticing my reflection I stop briefly, frame the image, release the shutter, and continue on my way.
  4. I stop, consider the reflection, subconsciously move myself and the camera slightly until the framed image more closely matches some internal set of aesthetic criteria, and only then release the shutter. This process may take anywhere from less than a second to … oh, say a minute.
  5. I cross the road, reach the other side, perhaps continue on my way for a few steps, but the reflection is turning over in my mind. I stop, go back, probably adjust my position as in the last case, and … click.
  6. I see the reflection, but it is raining and the image will not work. I do not take a photograph; instead I make a mental note, then return later in the day (or even on another day) when the sun is out.
  7. I see the reflection, but realise that if I wait until late afternoon the colour of the sky and the sunlight on the tree will enhance the image. I do not take a photograph; instead I make a mental note, then return later in the day (or even on another day; in an extreme case, I may return repeatedly until circumstances are exactly as I require) to capture the enhanced form which I have previsualised.
  8. I see the reflection, adjust my position etc, but the image still isn’t right. I go in search of the van’s owner, who obligingly moves the van to a different position where I am happier with the image.
  9. I see the reflection, but do not take a photograph of it at all. Instead I take the idea away with me. Having carefully planned how the idea can be executed, I arrange for a van with a silvered window and driver to be made available at a time and place where I can produce an ideal form of the image which the original observation suggested.
  10. The observation of an existing reflection never happens at all. I conceive the idea first, through an autonomous act of imagination. I then set out to create the reality so that I can photograph it.

Which of those can be described as “staged”? Strictly speaking (and this is what interests me sufficiently to embark upon such a protracted analysis of the question), the answer has to be “all of them, to some degree”. Even the first requires that I stage the circumstance of a camera connected to a random timer, and the set of possible resulting images is constrained by my own choice of routes and movements. The second involves, even if only at a subconscious and approximate level, a decision to frame the image in this way and not in that.

Moving on to Allaitz’s question, which of the above constitute “seeking” and which “finding”? Again, when I start to think about it, all of them require some combination of both – although in 1 and 10 there is one of them almost completely dominant with the other very much subsidiary, and to insist that both are important components may invite accusations of casuistry. From 2-9, however, I am confident. In 2, finding is clearly dominant; but since I selected and chose this particular moment to lift the camera I must, at some level, be looking for images in a general sense. In 9, seeking is the dominant component but relies for its trigger on finding the original observation.

Dirk’s question about ideas I shall come back to in a moment.

At various times, in relation to different images or projects, I will be within every one of those ten different approaches. I have the random timer, and have tried letting it photograph my day without interference from me. I have set up ideas entirely from imagination, with no conscious memory of an observed reality on which it is based (though I doubt the possibility of envisaging without reference to at least unconscious observations). The vast majority of my work is done in the range between 3 and 7. The Today series, though (and this, finally, after much verbiage, is my best answer to Jim and Allaitz) are always taken in zones 3-5 – and usually (at a rough guess, about 95% of the time) in zone 4 with the time taken being less than five seconds. Image 060119 was firmly in zone 4.

Jim has since supplemented his question with the added comment that:

“I don't believe you've staged a photo in the sense that you move elements to present the exact juxtaposition your eye wants. I wonder though whether you've allowed time or light to get exactly as desired or are they impromptu photos taken as you move through your day.”

He is there, I think, defining “staged” as anything from zone 6 or 7 upward. So, on that basis, I feel that my original reply is justified – but, as is often the case with questions in general and Jim’s in particular, I have learned a tremendous amount in the answering.

Although not directly relevant to the line I’ve been following, I can’t leave the issue of staging without quoting a comment from Clarissa Vincent on my conversation with Jim:

“Staged, here. means more as in the stages of a rocket than the stage of a theatre. It is sequence rather than presentation. [but] … ‘chance favours the prepared mind’...”

I like that, and will squirrel it away for use at some future time.

Coming back to Dirk’s question about where I get my ideas from … just as I have placed the bulk of what I do between 3 and 7 on the scale above, I would hazard a guess that the bulk of Dirk’s is between 6 and 10 – with a definite bias towards the upper end. That accounts for his question; he tends to conceive his images where I tend to stumble over mine.

And that, in turn, prompts me to consider where Jim’s quilts fall. Clearly, quilting and photography are radically different media in this respect: a quilt can never be produced in a second or two (or less), and only a composite project involving many photographs (or difficulty in obtaining them) would stretch over the months necessary to produce a quilt. The scale would have to be described in different terms if it were to meaningfully relate to the different processes involved. That said, I’ll hazard a guess that many quilt makers dwell wholly in zone 10, but from things which Jim has said in the past, my feeling is that 9 most closely approximates to his vision. I’d be interested to hear his own version of the scale – and his own assessment of his position on it. (Later addition: Jim has since provided both.)

“Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?”

(William Shakespeare: Sonnet 47 and The Merchant of Venice, III:2)

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