To Reach . . .
"Ah, but a manís reach should exceed his grasp, Or whatís a heaven for?"
That famous quotation, whose author Iíve forgotten (Browning, I think), has always meant to me that our inclination is to strive for higher accomplishments, because the exercise is more important than reaching the goal. By reaching, we extend our abilities as well as our horizons. It just occurred to me that there might be another meaning, one focused not so much on the reaching as upon the goal; specifically, the relationship. To seek that which is beyond oneís capability is to acknowledge the sublime.
I was watching a music video on television, listening to Mozartís Twentieth and seeing on the screen overcast winter views of an unknown European city, as it must have been during Mozartís time. Even though the scenes were in color, they were muted, almost dismal. Part of me was put off slightlyówinter is not my favorite time of year, and Iíve been feeling a bit depressed lately anyway. Another part of me was carried back to memories of early photographs, in which the tones struggled to emerge and the simple bare reality of a captured image was wonderful enough. The images of Fox Talbot and Daguerre may have foretold todayís spectacular photographic accomplishments, but in a sense their very shortcomings suggested an awareness of the futility of efforts to match the glory of what is. Icarusís destruction came not from flying but from his arrogance. Today even a child can produce photographs that by chance at least can match those of the most skillful professional, with breathtaking colors and incredible detail. As a result of this and the general profusion of such faithful-to-reality images, they have become mundane. Advertising must rely upon distortion to capture our attention. Motion pictures have to push the limits of propriety and spectacle in order to be noticed.
Remembering those early images, and indeed my own early attempts to capture images of objects in my world, I realize that there was a connection between the objects and me, a relationship, that somehow was more important than merely recording what my eyes saw. Taking the photograph was a reach, to be sure, but one that was admittedly doomed to failure in the most important sense, like that of the Medieval troubadour, singing his song to the inaccessible lady. The futility itself kept himóand meósinging. The results of my efforts were not memorable, but that didnít matter. During my youth photography became my passion, and because of it I found that I actually saw more in my environment.
Now, I go out with my seventeen pounds of cameras, lenses and film to "take pictures," and come home an hour later with a hundred images, remarkable in detail, color and fidelity, and Iím vaguely disappointed. I may have accurate records of a hundred scenes. I may even have some pleasing compositions or startling revelations of some aspect of what I saw. But I seldom have anything that reminds me of relationship. I came, I saw, I captured an image. But often I cannot even remember where I was or what I felt when I looked through the viewfinder. When I load the image into my computer to adjust and retouch it, I may discover something I didnít see in the beginning. I may then form a relationship to it, but itís no longer a relationship with the original object.
I think of photographers such as Weston and Adams who spent hours stalking a single exposure, lugging heavy equipment into the field; or still further back, of George Eastman and Matthew Brady setting up tents in which to develop their negatives on the spot. If they could see me with my motorized Nikon, fast lenses and superb color film, they might be envious. But I think they had something I seldom experienceóa relationship to what they saw.
In my reaching to capture an image, maybe I want simply to be able to say, "Look at what I made," rather than, "Look at what I saw." The laughing clutch of teen-aged girls, taking snapshots of each other at a pajama party, may be doing something more meaningful, in their lifetimes, than I am in "creating" a beautiful picture. The value to them is "That looks just like you!" more often than "That makes you look glamorous!" Glamour, whether in a portrait or a landscape, ignores relationship.
Maybe thatís why a simple sketch of a familiar place is often more appealing to us than a richly detailed color photograph. Being transported to a place in our memory may happen more readily if the place itself is not there in the picture. Itís in our headsóor, rather, our relationship to the place is in our heads. Emotionally, suggestion is more powerful than bald statement.
So, why do I do it? Why do I look at things and reach for my camera? Why do I spend much of my vacation time glancing at things through a viewfinder? Why do I visit people I love and grab quick snapshots of them to take back home? Maybe the reach has become too easy, and I reach for a relationship without feeling the need to make a commitmentógrab to take, instead of stopping to see. It seems a little like attending church instead of contemplating my soul. One can do both, of course. I could make photographs that mean something to me. Or I could even pay more attention to how I relate to people and places, and forget the photographs.
Photography has always pulled at me. Something in me wants to hold on to experiences and people by fixing them on film. I know itís impossible. Still, I can look at old photos of people, places and times, and feelónot what I felt then, but a connection, a thread between me now and who I was then, relating to those experiences from the past.
I like to write more than I like to talk, in part because I can slow down and consider what Iím saying. I can examine my relationship to the subject, even go back and change something that didnít work the first time. Iíd like to make photographs like that again, the way I did when all I had was my dadís old folding camera and a sense of wonder. Iíd like to learn to reach again, instead of grabbing.
When photography became common and easy, there were some who said that it would replace painting, that the painter could not hope to portray a scene as accurately as the photographer. That didnít happen. What did happen was that painters had to look more closely at what they portrayed. They had to see better. A photograph cannot show us what a Monet or a Degas can. True, a camera and computer in the hands of an artist can produce a vision. The important thing is not the tool used, but the insight of the person using the tool.
And insight is always about relationship.
Donald Skiff, June 26, 2001