I’m fundamentally a mystic. That is, I believe that we perceive only a very shallow, flat projection of a very deep and rich reality. At the same time, I’m very much a pragmatist; I believe that things which cannot be detected are, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. If it doesn’t have any impact on you, then you may as well act as if it isn’t there.
In my mind the resolution of these somewhat opposite viewpoints lies in subtlety. I think that much of the richness and depth to reality is hidden to our direct observation, and that in order to appreciate it, we need to use non-sensory tools like reason to help us pick things apart so that we can apprehend them in terms we understand. I’ve talked before about how one of the reasons I’m coming to feel that making a lot of photos of something is that in making lots of photos you start to discern things you’d otherwise miss.
Subtlety, it turns out, is a topic which Doug Stockdale tackles in his recent post. In that post, he points to a review of a show which says:
Among the most haunting and beautiful photographs are Belgian Bart Michiel’s present-day images of World War I battlefields, now cleansed of all evidence of the horrors that went on there.
Pumpkins grow in furrowed rows in the tiny Belgian village of Goudberg, where thousands of soldiers died in the mud in the battle for Passchendaele.
The image is one of three in the show from Michiel’s “Course of History” series, picturing battle sites dating from before the birth of Christ up to Omaha Beach. The Nelson’s selections all focus on World War I.
Although nature has reclaimed these sites, Michiel is on the alert for ghosts. By his own account he seeks out “happenstance traces and features on the land that refer metaphorically to combat.”
The tractor tracks that cut through the mist-shrouded field shown in “Verdun 1916, Le Mort Homme” (2001) evoke the tanks that rolled through the area during the Battle of Verdun.
Subtlety is one of this exhibit’s strong suits.
Now, I’m a fan of subtlety. It’s part of my world view. For me, photography as a pastime is all about using photography as a tool to pierce the veil of subtley and come to grips with that deeper, richer reality that we can’t connect with in more direct ways.
So you’d think I’d be enthusiastic about these photos. I don’t know; I haven’t seen them. But there’s something that makes me wary, and it’s the question of where the subtlety is coming from.
Did Michiel go to these battlefields knowing the history of the place, and look for traces and features that refer metaphorically to combat? Or did he go to these places and make photographs, and after having made the photographs come to find that many (or most, or the ones he liked) contained these features, and upon examining the features come to some understanding that the features were in some sense references to the combat that occurred on that spot?
From a photographic object point of view, I can’t see that it much matters. There’s no objective test you can apply to a photograph that will allow you to discover the photographer’s intent. At that point, there’s just the photograph, and the viewer having the experience of seeing the photo. The experience of the photographer, if it’s presented at all, is boiled down to some elliptical text in the artist statement.
Nevertheless, from the photographer’s point of view, it’s a world of difference. It’s the difference between going out into the world with a camera, hoping that by using the camera you can (if you’re quite lucky) tease some understanding of things out of a cunningly subtle world, and going out into the world with a statement in mind, planning to hammer reality into the shape needed to express that statement.
It turns out that as time goes on I’m more and more interested in the former and less and less interested in the latter. I’m not saying that’s the right way to tackle things. I’m just saying that it seems to be the way I’m put together, and the more I come to accept it instead of change the way I am, the more contented I am. And I’m also saying that if you happen to put together in the same quirky way, well, you’re not the only one.