Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Photography and Contingency

I recently bought a camera with impressive features and capabilities. To master it, I’ll first need to absorb the camera’s thick manual. Then, shoot lots of photographs. Because failure is a daily part of creating art, I’ll have many failures ahead of me, if I set myself the goal of using the camera to create art.

Camera technology today makes picture taking nearly foolproof. Point and shoot. No need to have a complicated camera; today’s disposables do a fine job. It’s easy to take a good photograph. Taking an interesting photograph is another matter. Just as the best cookware is a pleasure to use, but unfortunately wholly ancillary to creating a great meal, using a professional camera is satisfying though it in no way ensures an interesting photograph. It’s not the tool. Amateurs using cheap cameras sometimes take interesting, even great, photographs. Thomas Walther’s Other Pictures is a fascinating collection of such photographs. However, snapshooters usually create work of interest by chance.

Most photographers like to minimize chance. They want to achieve a predetermined look—the look of advertising or fashion or the family photo album or a tableau . Unexpected results are unwelcome. The art director expects to get what she ordered. The family wants to relive the birthday or vacation. Both the commercial photographer and the snapshooter know a style—the conventions of photography—and adhere to them. When conventions are broken, surprising things may happen, but they are still failures

I welcome chance—the chance encounter and the unpredictable registration of something on film or the digital sensor. Part of my attraction to chance is psychological. By submitting to chance, I feel I relinquish control, and so am not responsible for failure. This is not true, of course; I control most of what I create. And only I decide whether or not my creations are of interest to me (or possibly you).

But what about the more important, deeper implications of chance? What is the relationship between the philosophy of chance and the aesthetics of chance? These questions came to mind as I thumbed through my copy of Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. No philosopher, I enjoy reading philosophy occasionally. Its extended arguments give me pleasure, and nearly always raise interesting questions. Some are worth unpacking, even by armchair readers of philosophy.

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