Winston Churchill said it first in a radio broadcast in October 1939: "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma..."
He was referring to Russian national interest (some things never change) but he might as well have been speaking about, oh, photography, don't you think?
Art, of which photography is a grafted and healthy branch, is all of those, with conundrum thrown in for good measure.
Why are we so drawn like moths to the flame of photography? I believe it's because we long to see - not just to grab a quick glance and stumble on to the next stimulus, but to really peer beneath the veil or through the hedgerow into the Source of All That Is. I want to know why things are the way they are, and how this streak of bright lightning across the horizon, red-eyed frog on a zen lily pad, or beautiful face gazing back at me could possibly even exist in the first place. We're usually fairly pragmatic when peering through the viewfinder, but tearing off the shipping label for the prize inside is what we're really after, ultimately. We love the dogged pursuit of our holy grail, and armed with DSLR and trusty tripod, we travail to the ends of the earth, ardent to the last breath.
If we choose not to take anything for granted, every photograph we take, regardless of subject or skill, is a fine riddle, a flatland of secret symbols struggling to break free, a wormhole through timeless time, and with each leap only half the distance to the great wall of understanding. A compelling photograph is magnetically hypnotic, beguiling us to step through its frame. A great photograph answers each question with two more, taking us even further in. The journey called "making photographs" lasts a lifetime, with countless stiles and abandoned castles to explore on the Way.
A photograph is a conundrum stuffed full of "hidden."
A photograph of a beautiful landscape may reveal unseen details upon close inspection. There's a deer just behind that stand of aspens, a fallen tree struck by lightning, evidence of pine beetle damage, a shaft of sunlight illuminating the damp forest floor. A photograph of a dear friend may expose something in her eyes you couldn't see yourself - fight, despair, clarity, determination, fear - even though you know her cancer has stamped her with an impending expiration date. A photograph of a spring leaf contains the blueprint of its inevitable autumn fall from the tree, a cloud carries within itself a raging river.
The hidden stuff of a good photograph is not the same as clutter or distraction. Clutter is just junk the lens gathers in and and splatters all over the sensor because it's got no place else to put it. Wouldn't it be nice if a camera came along with a virtual sorting conveyor belt - all the trash goes off to be recycled while the valuable stuff gets painted directly onto the sensor exactly where it should go. Someday, some misguided soul will invent such a device and we humans won't need to create art anymore. Let the machines do it. But I hope I'm long dead and gone before that happens.
We need a healthy dose of "hidden" in every area of our lives. Photography included. It's our fuel, our faith, the substance of things unseen. Every little bit is a clue that there's more to the picture than meets the eye. Every "hidden" is a key that fits in a lock someplace; our job is to find it.
Of course, we strive to create photographs that are well conceived and composed, processed, and printed to their maximum potential. We feel especially good when we create that rare one free of clutter, sloppy vision, and cliche. But it's not enough. A real photograph should also channel something else, something from beyond the pixels, something we cannot give it. What we can do is open the door and invite it in.
IDEAS FOR "HIDDEN:"
- Use another art form as a catalyst as you shoot - music is a highly effective one. Listen to different musical genres - how do they affect what and how you shoot?
- Do the opposite - leave your cell phone and watch at home or in the car. Listen intently to everything around you as you shoot. Get lost in it.
- Go to a nearby park and look for "hidden" items you may not have noticed before - animal tracks, litter, insect damage, fallen leaves, color variations.
- In your next portrait session, look for the brief moment when your subject's guard goes down. Capture what they normally keep hidden - it might be a micro-expression, body language, or an unexpected transition.
- Hide an object in a series of photographs. How long before someone notices?
- Shoot several images using the same unifying concept or theme. Have the group guess what it is.
HIDDEN will run for two weeks, from October 19 through November 1. Happy shooting!