Expressive Images vs Responsive Images
I read a couple of photography blogs written by photographers who are gifted thinkers and writers. One of things that repeatedly comes up on these blogs is the suggestion that the proper way to approach photography (landscape photography in particular) is to make images that represent how you feel about a subject rather than images that endeavor to represent the subject itself. Writers often describe this as a “conversation” or “dialog” between the photographer and the subject. The basic line of thinking is that images created in a purely representational manner lack some intrinsic, higher level beauty or value expressive of the “relationship” between the human and the landscape. (It’s generally taken as obvious that there’s actually no way to make a truly neutral, representational image even if you wanted to. So the advice ultimately is to be deliberate about incorporating and harnessing your personal biases (or “vision”), rather than undertaking the futile crusade to eliminate them.)
On a certain level that mindset has been useful to me. In particular, I like the idea of being very self-aware and deliberate about things, rather than being a robotic shutter clicker whenever you encounter something that “looks like a picture.” But beyond that I’ve always sort of scratched my head when I hear people talking about having a “conversation” with the landscape. It’s as if these photographers see themselves as biographers of the landscape, trying to figure out how to make images that capture what the landscape wants to say about itself. I think of this approach as “Responsive” photography: Go to a location and respond to or interpret what you find and attempt to make an image that tells the story. Given the number of people who talk this way, there must be something legit in it, but I just don’t see it. There must be a third way.
For me photography has always been much more about expression than response. The truth of it is that when I’m making images I’m far more conscious of and intentional about the expression of something in me than I am about the response to something outside of me. It’s a terribly narcissistic way to be I guess, but it also feels like the most honest approach. I don’t really feel like I can be a spokesman for anything other than my own personal experience. I tend to use the landscape in a way that is symbolic to me. The physical object that is ostensively the “subject” of the image is generally just a symbolic stand-in for the real subject: some abstract thought or mood.
The difference between expressive image making and responsive image making can be very subtle at times, but the fundamental difference is that expressive image making is taking something internal and draping it over something external, whereas responsive image making is taking something external and flavoring it with something internal. Expressive images emphasize the internal rather than the external as the primary subject.
Making expressive images brings with it a few problems though. First, as I mentioned earlier, it’s pretty narcissistic because every image ends up being about the photographer in one way or another. That can get tiring, I imagine, for people (including the photographer.) Second, whenever you get into using symbols and/or metaphors, you run the risk of drifting into the lukewarm waters of visual cliché. Third, expressive images may or may not convey accessible meaning to viewers. I’ve made images that carry enough meaning to fill a few pages if I were to try and write out what I think of them. But the viewer only has the visual clues in the image itself to form an impression. I don’t really have an answer for these problems beyond this: keep making images and make them as honestly and intentionally as I can. People may or may not connect with what I’m doing. They may or may not feel what I feel and they may or may not attach any value to my efforts. But in the end I think I’ll be more satisfied with the time and effort that I’ve invested along the way.
I’d like to point out that I’m not writing this in an effort invalidate other approaches. I’m writing partially to help cement my own thoughts on the subject and partially to present an alternative to what I perceive to be the current, dominate paradigm around landscape image making.