institute for documentary studies

{Week 9: Photo}

Week 9: Photo

I didn’t realize, before Salt, that photography is its own form of poetry. Because of my own inexperience and ignorance, I short-changed the whole medium, never able to connect to it as a fluent language, instead seeing it as a series of disjointed fragments.
No surprise then that reading a photo book proved a greater mystery, given my lack of photographic literacy. The past few weeks at Salt, then, have been one extended, persistent question:  What makes a photo book worth reading?
Richard Billingham’s collection of photos, “Ray’s A Laugh,” was one I couldn’t work out. Almost all the images within its pages are riddled with grain, and blurred photos are scattered throughout.  There’s one in particular of two dogs sitting on a couch, their faces indistinct from a too-long exposure.
“Why is this photo here?” I asked in class the other day, perplexed. “What makes it worth including?” The response, from Nelson, my photo instructor: Turn to the page before, and turn to the page after, he said. How do these images speak to each other? How do they relate?
The image before: a man and his son. The image after: the man and his son, throwing a tennis ball at his father’s unsuspecting face. “Do you see how it goes from one pair to another?” Nelson asked.
At the flip of a page, the connection between one image to the next can be rooted in a color, a character, a theme. It might be the same color or a contrasting one, the same character or a related one, the continuation of an idea or the conclusion of one. Vague — but it can sometimes be that simple, he said.
Like a poem, with each line paving the way for the next, photography is just as much about fluidity as any other medium.  Sometimes the technique doesn’t say so much about the image, as the image itself speaks to the mood of the book or the intention of the author – even if it’s technically flawed.
“Basically, I don’t think you’ve spent enough time with the book,” Nelson said. I missed the point of the book for focusing on its technical flaws.
Nelson told us about how he’s pondered some books for years. It took seven before he understood Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” he said.
Sometimes he’ll ask himself, Why this image and not another? What does it mean? Like the way you consider the meaning of a line, he’ll ponder the significance of a transition or the selection of a certain image. Much in the way that written words will stick with you, or a lyric will stay on the edge of your tongue, so will the mood of a photo book linger in your thoughts.