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Photography: visual poetry I

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A photograph is the result of three main components: subject, form and content

Photography belongs simultaneously to the domains of technique, art, and commerce, without being strictly attached to any of them. Instead, it is definitively linked to the issues of literature and language.  A photograph is the result of three main components: subject, form and content.  The old question: “is photography art?” has been replaced with “is photography a poetic language?”, a question that the Surrealists and the avant-garde artists of the first part of the twentieth century as well as the contemporary perspective on both photography and literature answered with a clear and loud “Yes”.  A photographer can take the poet’s path.  Therefore, it is possible to define “the writing with light” as a radical form of writing, completed without, or beyond the written word. 

Both poets and photographers use the same vocabulary

Both poets and photographers use the same vocabulary, but what makes the difference is that they arrange the words in different ways by reducing, simplifying and deepening, thus saying more with less. Arranging the contents of a photograph is like composing a poem; a good poet doesn’t add random words to verses or unnecessary verses to strophes. Photography operates with the same principle of distilling the concepts as poetry by forcing us to think, and it does so because it forces us first to see.  Literally, the one who thinks is also the one who sees: one does so because of the presence of a light. Thought can itself be defined as a mirror that reflects the light through which we perceive the visible world.

“I do not see with my eyes: the words are my eyes”

The metaphor is a way of thought before it is a way with words. As poet Octavio Paz famously said: “I do not see with my eyes: the words are my eyes” (Paz, 1990, p.437).   “Photography seems like a bright comet that spreads a powerful light through the universe in the midst of darkness” (Valéry,  excerpt from a speech given at the Sorbonne to members of the French Academy,  1939). The physical phenomenon of light, which is at the source of all pictures, has always been an object of study for philosophers and mystics. More precisely, light has for centuries been a metaphor of thought itself.

Taken literally, the Greek words “photos” and “graphos” together mean “drawing with light”

There is no exact information on how and when photography began, but the first printed photographs were  made between 1816 and 1840 continuing on the previous century’s discovery that certain chemicals turned black when exposed to light. “The basic design of the cameras we use today has been in use since the 1500s. The Chinese figured it out even longer ago than that — as early as the fourth century. So, photography is between 1,500 and 150 years old” (O’Brien and Sibley, 1995, p.11). During its early history, photography was dominated by portraits and representations of nature sharing many formal characteristics with classical painting. But the sudden changes brought by the twentieth-century have determined a profound transformation in the mind and the aesthetic vision of the photographers. 

Photography is still rooted in the past

From a technical point of view, photography is, without doubt, linked to the modern era that began with capitalism and industrialization. But its development happened to take place at the very end of art, an era dominated by painting and sculpture, so, from an artistic point of view, photography is still rooted in the past:  “Photography comes, therefore, both too late and too early. It comes too late because it is preceded by a long history of art and pictorial tradition which threatens to distort or oversimplify its definition. But it also comes too early to the extent that it anticipates the cultural development of imagery in the twentieth-century, from film to television to virtual reality. Photography thus signifies both an end and a beginning to representation” (Taminiaux, 2009, p.9).

(to be continued…)

References

Orwig, C. (2010). Visual Poetry. Berkeley: New Riders.

O’Brien, M.F., &  Sibley, N. (1995). The Photographic Eye.  Worcester: Davis Publications, Inc.

Bate, D. (2003). Photography and Surrealism. London-NY: I.B. Tauris.

Osterman, M., & Romer, G. (2007, 4th Edition). The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography.  Burlington: Focal Press. 

Belt, A.F. (2008). The Elements of Photography, Burlington: Focal Press.

Taminiaux, P. (2009). The paradox of photography.  Amsterdam, NY: Ed. Rodopi. 

Geary, J. (2010, October 2). Metaphorically speaking (TEDTalks video). TED-Ideas worth spreading.

Ford, J. (2002, January). Photography as metaphor and symbol. A sharper focus on the work of William Wylie. Arts & Sciences Magazine at the University of Virginia. 

Shore, S. (1998). The Nature of Photographs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Paz, O. (1991). The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, A draft of shadows (poem), p.437. NY: New Directions Books.

Valery, P. (2001). Le Discours du centenaire de la photographie (in Études Photographiques). Paris: Société Française de Photographie.

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Susanna Patras is an international award-winning fine art landscape and travel photographer whose images convey simplicity, elegance and a touch of mystery.

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