Beyond the Photographer as a Predator of Images
By Roy D. Follendore III
Copyright © 2004 By RDFollendoreIII
Well over thirty years ago I began to gradually realize that I had potential talent as a creative Artist and that perhaps it could be something that I wanted to do with my life. Though I has been told that I was able to draw well, I more often than not, I had not began to chose to work through the technology of photography. I think that I eventually chose photography not because it is easy to obtain artistic images but because I realized that it is so deceptively difficult. I now photograph as a means to produce Fine Art in part because the act of photography immerses me within the images which surround me. I seek in particular those images that I would seek even without a camera in hand. I am now not speaking about the subject of what makes photographic images; I am talking about the essence of what I have come to understand it is to be a Photographer as an artist. Perhaps what I have come to understand to be true for me may also be something that can intellectually benefit your photographic art work.
November 20, 2004
To begin to understand photography you first need to understand yourself. To understand my writing about photography I suppose you need to understand something about me. I am a child of the television age and that being so I donít remember a moment in my life when images were not a part of me. I became serious about photography while serving in the U.S. Army. Our base gave soldiers like me a place to go and do crafts and its photography lab gave me something to do with my off duty time. My interest was eventually serious enough for me to choose photography as my major in college when I got out of the military. The funny thing is that I donít remember having deliberately made that decision. Photography sort of absorbed me. I seemed to have flowed in the direction of photography as my major. And the reason that I was so absorbed by photography had nothing to do with my ability to manipulate a pencil and a paint brush. I already knew then that I could draw as well or better than other students in my college who were going for their B.F.A., and somehow I still decided on photography as my major.
As I got older and my art became second nature, I would often think about what it takes to perform the necessary preliminary actions for taking quality photographs. I am not just talking about the training or the knowledge of equipment or lighting techniques. I am talking about the mindset. To take quality photographs takes that certain mindset that photographers donít talk about and it occurred to me that the fact that we donít talk about it is interesting in itself. Why is that? Why do those truly great photographers who take quality photographs go silent about the act of what they do? Is it because they donít know? Perhaps they hide what they are from themselves. Perhaps they donít want others to know. Perhaps they are afraid. After all, talking about yourself, about that moment when you are most intellectually engaged is difficult to understand.
As photographers do we simply go out to Ďcaptureí images in boxes? Is that all that there is to it or is the act of being a photographer more than that? Are we photographers simply imaging predators? If so then what is beyond that? Perhaps we just donít know. Perhaps we just have not explored the possibility of knowing. Obviously such an exploration is something more than an intellectual exercise; it is an anthological/anthropological journey. By this I mean that in writing as with photography, I find that I must take snapshots of what I am thinking, translate it in some way and turn it over to others who may or may not appreciate what it is that I have done.
As a photographer working with images, at any given moment I often canít tell you exactly where photographs begin and I end. All that I know as I begin writing about this subject is that over time and through trial and error practice, in order to take my best photographs, I have learned that I must first psychologically center myself. In order to find the best images I keep in mind exactly what it is that I am. When I 'go-out' to photograph, I am a predator of images. I operate from faith that the images I seek but have never seen are out there. To be successful I have the confidence that I will be successful. I am acutely aware that I must not be unnecessarily noticed by others. There are photogenic intangibles which I know I must do my best to avoid unnecessarily disturbing. I am prepared for the fact that there will somehow be a natural congress between me and my subjects that must take place.
It is within the nature of this photographic prospect that I must quietly move into the best position to act. I expect to wait for just the right moment. I hide behind my chosen weapon and silently I choose that optimum moment. Time stands still at the moment I choose to take my prey. That moment the shutter is released I have stolen the light of my prey.
I have often heard it said that many primitive cultures have thought that photography takes the souls of people. Perhaps they were right. While I seek the perfect image of my prey I fully understand that I also seek to capture its immortality. I become immersed within the environment. I understand that I must be willing and able to see and to use the most primitive elements which surround me. I realize that natural forces are my allies as well as my opponents. The forces of nature both enhance and detract from my performance. Whenever I think about the process it makes me humble to consider that the lowly photon is the key to my success. I am a photographer and like a wolf, stalking my prey is what I do.
One would suppose that a wolf is born pretty much knowing that it is a wolf. Of course I am not a wolf, and I was certainly not born a photographer. On the other hand, I think that I knew the moment that I held and realized the potential of a camera that I was born with the necessary skills to be a photographer. I took up photography while serving in the Army, but before I knew very much about photography, I like other children had played the natural games that would enhance my skills as a photographer.
In hide-and-seek for instance, I most enjoyed being the seeker. For me, finding other children who hid from me in this game seemed to be very much a visual act of discovery. In fact, the process of hiding became an act of trying to become visually unnoticed and also helped me on my chosen path as a photographer. When you think about it, these are the basic physical and psychological games that all young predators as well as photographers must be willing to both practice and appreciate.
Before photographers are able to choose images, we must first come to terms with the technical craft of taking photographs. But at a different level, even before the 'natural photographer' can come to terms with the photographic craft we must come to terms with our hunter gatherer instincts. This is what I have been discussing and it is a discussion that leads me to a number of interesting intellectual conclusions. I am certain that such considerations have provided me with a clear idea about what kind of photographer I can and must be.
By understanding the fact that excellence within photography begins with the basic hunter gatherer instinct, I also understand that the act of taking photographs is a natural one. When everything is going right, taking photographs simply feels right and it is instinctual. What I am describing goes far beyond the concept of technical competence. As my ability to critique my work has evolved, I have developed a language of subjects. The highest quality of imagery I now seek through the lens of a camera may only occur once in a thousand shutter releases. After decades of photographic experiences, when I am photographing I typically no longer have to see the image to know that I have accomplished my imaging task. The fact that I can take high quality images does not mean that a very high percentage of these technically high quality images are up to my minimal aesthetic requirements.
In the final analysis, when the necessary complexities of photographic tools are mastered, the desire and tendency to photograph must be largely turned over to our predatory natural instincts. One might speculate that this is because modern technology is continuing to make the act of taking vivid photographs easier. Even the most sophisticated and complex cameras have point and shoot modes. Within the act of photography, anyone is capable of easily commanding the camera to record what is put in front of it.
One could also argue that, natural instincts aside, it is far easier today for the camera to feel like a natural extension of ourselves. The ultimate issues that eventually come up after the camera records enough images are the questions surrounding what it is that actually takes place during the photographic process. Is the artistic responsibility of a particular resulting image due in totality to the act of commanding the camera to take images, or is the photographer simply the technological enabler? Are we really being honest in claiming the images that we take as ours? Is photography simply a technical lie? These are questions that all photographers need to address if they are going to progress as photographers.
To put the foundation of these kinds of questions in a different way; as photographers we must consider our intended product of photography both before and after we can consider photography in terms of technology. For me personally, I believe that the highest form of photography is a Fine Art and that Art is an expressive form of intuitive order that is consistent with intentionality. I may say what Art is, but that does not say everything that photography is. Is the purely technical process of objective photographic documentation a creative act?
The questions of documentary photography lead me to explore a multitude of far more complex philosophical questions about the nature of fine art. If you expect to be an artist you can't ignore such an exploration for this is the essence of what true artists end up doing. The images are merely the substance through which they do their experiments. If for instance, beauty becomes the objective of Art and if beauty can exist without the need for humanity, then can art exist without reference to artistic creativity? Is the predatory hunt for artistic images justifiable in terms of the basic creative instinct? I suppose that the way one might answer these questions depends on the individual photographerís cultivated personal relationship to their photographic images.
Photography is a rigorous personal metaphor as much as it is a technological act. The concept of the consequences of considering photography as a 'natural' art brings us face to face with direct questions concerning our humanity and humanity's rightful place in the technological future. Is it necessary for the photographer to take responsibility for the beauty of the image that has been captured by the camera? Are photographers being presumptuous by attempting to take credit for beauty through what is a fundamentally technological act?
Certainly technology is a part of what humanity has become. But once enough surveillance cameras have been manufactured and installed on enough streets, does photography really need human photographers? It is one thing to say that personal selection, the manual aspects of technical capture and representation of imaged subjects are communicative acts, but it is entirely a different thing to state that these technological events in and of themselves represent creativity. We can only conclude that doing Fine Art is not as simple as Ďpoint and shoot.í
If the functional products of photographic documentation processes are intended to be a creative act, then the degree to which these processes involve personal selection with respect to the manipulation of the act of technical capture and representation are important issues. Moreover, the degree to which the final imaged product relates to creative intent comes into question. Unless the final image has somehow been fundamentally affected by a photographer, the responsibility for that image belongs as much to the camera manufacturer as the photographer.
Mass produced and mindlessly programmed "Predator Drones" sent to automatically photograph the unknown may very well result in beautiful images, but only within the crudest sense of 'found-art' could the process be manifestly considered creative acts of Art. Within the predatory hunt of photographic Fine Art, the 'game' that is taken is neither found nor consumed by machines, but by the hunter predator himself, and only then shared with others of his kind. The behavioral science term of 'pictorial error' describes the subject/model identity problem. An 'image of' is not the same as an 'image is'.
The moment that we take the image of our prey that image becomes who we are instead of what it is, in the same way as the hunterís meat is not the living animal. Even if taken alive, the captive animal on display in a zoo is immediately out of context with what it would have otherwise been within its natural environment. Zoo animals in a cage are no more naturally functional than the trophy photographs that we take of them and mount on our walls. In the same sense, the documented beauty of even the most faithfully represented photographs are derived manifestations of the objects that have been imaged.
The photographer who chooses to simply document a particular image through a photographic technology may say, "I witnessed this image and I am the transcriber of this beauty!," but not "I created this beauty." In a rational way of thinking about the subject, regardless whether the result is beautiful or ugly, the documentary photographer must come to terms and forever remain content with his or her own genuine passivity. This is a form of sublime respect to the intentional creative act of doing art. Photography intended to be expressed as a document of reality inherently involves 'beautiful humility' on the part of the photographer.
In the end it is not necessary that we must assume that a photograph must be Fine Art. While the art of the predator photographer may exist within the act of hunting the image, the craft of the photographer is nothing more or less than what it is. The craft of photography is not art. That photographic documentation is the first order of what people with cameras do is inescapable. The implied fact that a particular photographer took a particular photograph; or the fact that the photographer has taken a number of particular photographs is not really important. From the view of those who appreciate photographic images, the importance of the predatorily humility is that the experience of the image has been shared with the tribe.
Within the primitive notion of the photographic process involved in documenting an image, the photographer graciously humbles his notion of man as a manipulator of all things in the presence of an amazing technical process and in so doing allows his or her notion of the creative act to be subservient to that of technology. It is a process whereby the purity of the original image is intended to be reflected through the photographerís technical decisions. This might be compared to a kind of photography Zen art philosophy in the sense that there exists the abstract implication is that man chooses reality by becoming one with the function of the image. The same could be considered of the hunting predator who must become one with the mind of its prey.
At its best there is implied within the process of documentary photography the visceral sense that anyone who personally had witnessed the original image would have chosen to capture that image. The photographers eye is indirectly referenced by the image of photograph as though it were some 'God like' machine that unites the concept of humanity, and so that all mankind may see and worship, without judgment of the maker. This is the sense of power that the camera brings to the documentary photographer as images emerge, and it becomes known that perhaps the process may have fulfilled its promise. It is easy to compare this kind of rewarding sense of power to that of the successful hunter.
As with the hunt, there is the tremendous potential of psychological addiction. Perhaps the documented image delivers a substance of great visual power over humanity at least in part because the documentary photographer has been able to subjugate the egotistical notion that images must be manipulated. The "purest" of these documentary photographers reside in their 'rational' universe where the camera simply records images of "what was there." This is a minimalist photographic perspective where the act of doing Art is considered unimportant.
But what if we consider the concept of Photography as Fine Art? What aesthetically occurs when the photographer deliberately chooses to ignore the 'pure' arbitration of the camera as an instrument of reality to directly modify his image? Is it true that there is as much creativity in the act of image selection as there is in image manipulation? These are some of the questions that some photographers do not want to address in their images because the camera is incapable of being any more or less than the thing that it is. To agree on this we only would have to assume that first and foremost, the camera captures and stores images.
The ability to capture our prey is the whole point of manufacturing the camera. On the other hand, if it is the image rather than the camera that is to be considered Fine Art, it must be the image that is the focal point of manipulations. In this way of thinking, photographic images intended to be Fine Art, are the result of the human beings attempting to interpret and reconcile the differences between photorealism and abstract impressionism. Perhaps not all that much has changed in the thousands of years since the cave man was trying to reconcile the memory of his hunt in the 'dark room' of his cave.
Our fine tuned instincts for Fine Art have remained buried within the nature of what we all once were. Since the moment that man first used a tool for hunting food, man has admired new technologies. For example, it remains easy to appreciate the qualities of a finely made Clovis arrowheads created by prehistoric North American natives. The analogies that can be made between the technologies involved in hunting and photography are not really as far fetched as they might first seem.
Because newer types of arrowheads were more efficient and stayed on the arrow shaft better the 'new technology' allowed ancient hunters to distance themselves a little further from the death of their prey. In a similar vein we can enjoy the design of early cameras as magnificent inventions that allowed human beings to participate in the functional qualities of a hunt without the requirement of death. Just as the tools used by hunters have changed, the recent rapid changes in the evolution of the camera do nothing to change our admiration of the camera.
Whether a photographic technology uses a digital chip or film, it is just as easy to agree that a camera is nothing less than a miraculous tool. Perhaps the processes of the photographer acting as a visual predator may lay closer to the bones of the hunter than we may wish to consider. The decomposition and mutilation of the prey once taken is an integral part of the hunting process. When the photographer really considers what takes place within the photographic process, it becomes obvious that the camera allows the photographer to approach the original embodiment of the image with the specific intent of not only capturing it, but transforming it.
This means that for the photographer, that which has been discovered is also something to be rediscovered through the lens of a camera. This transformation for new discovery is something that those who are not photographers do not always recognize or completely appreciate. They assume that the images that come from cameras are reality. If Photography is to be called Art, then the degree to which the Artist and the viewer participate in the act of transformation of discovery and rediscovery must certainly be the defining clue of its understanding and promotion.
I continue to ask myself about the meaning of all of this. For all of the reasons that have been provided, I have come to the conclusion that the pure results that come from photographic technology as the instrument of the hunt is simply not enough to be labeled as Art. Although the invisible eyes and hands of the photographer may exist within selection of the photographed image, it is ultimately the photographerís mark of mind and hand that transforms photography into Fine Art.
The very reason why Photography is such a difficult medium for an Artist exists within the ease of the act of capturing a likeness. The Fine Art of Photography exploded the mythical artistic license that craftsmen who easily create an accurate image likeness are by default involved in producing Fine Art. Photography both destroyed the notion of Art at the same moment that it fertilized the basis upon which it now resides. The Photographer as the predator surpasses himself through the attempt of doing Fine Art. This observation has had important implications to the definition of Fine Art.
The advent of Modern Art can be seen as a result of the arrival of the first daguerreotype image. Except for the expense, it became possible for anyone to try their hand at being an artist. Prior to the invention of the camera a significant part of the beauty of Fine Art is the fact that the finest quality hand with even the steadiest artistic talent produces an inconsistent interpreted representation of the subject matter. In contrast, the daguerreotype accurately and faithfully represented the subject of the selected image and even had a reasonable degree of portability.
Few people today truly appreciate the strength of early photographs. In terms of image preciousness, technical detail, and archival quality, daguerreotypes were in many ways superior to the images that we see around us today. Every early daguerreotype image is a unique original. Eventually the technology of the daguerreotype gave way to processes that were extremely portable, much less expensive and far easier to reproduce. Both the ability to perform the ritual of the image hunt as well as its cost became affordable.
It was no wonder that the technical reaction of the culture of Fine Art to photography was to both emulate and distance itself from the fundamental nature of the photographic process. We can see this in the pointillistís, the expressionistís, and the cubistís efforts; and we can see it in the work of the photorealist painters. To fine artists of the 19th century the technology of photography cheapened what it meant to be an artist. Artists responded by attempting to refine the definition of fine art from technological art. The ritualistic acts of the photographic hunter were enhanced though these new definitions of Fine Art.
When you take the time to read and absorb all of these things perhaps it begins to makes sense. Technology changes the basic situational context and therefore the values of human action. We may maintain the rational comparison of photography to hunting prey for food because in a similar sense, technology has also affected the nature of that predatory act. Higher productivity through technology devalues the act of predation for the same reason that the modern high powered rifle with an infrared telescopic sight reduces the notion of hunting to a cold act of killing.
For example: While some 'purest' might argue that the aesthetic predatory resolution is simply minimized or perhaps that a morbid sense of 'technical beauty' can exist from a shot from 500 yards, the basic truth is that the empathy and tragedy between the hunter and the hunted is lost. Now, "a Texas company is considering letting web users use a remote-controlled rifle (with a mounted webcam) to shoot down deer, antelope and wild pigs." (from <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4022147.stm ) This is a commercial Internet version of a remote controlled photographic weapon system that the United States has deployed throughout the current war within the Middle East. Because images are captured and recorded in the process it is easy to make the case that they are technological extensions of the photographic predatory act.
Such extreme examples speak to the unrelenting and fundamental fact that if we choose to advance such ideas then photographic technology can and will be taken past the point of perversion of the norms of civilized values, perhaps permanently changing that which took humanity so long to acquire. But what does all of this have to do with Photography? The simple response is that it has everything to do with it!
There is a point where a fundamental change in the way that things are produced also changes the fundamental nature of the things being produced. In the case of the production of Fine Art this point of change involves the hand, the eye and the mind of the artist. Ritual is part of the meaning of the predatory hunt just as it is a part of the photographic process. Through the technological process of producing cameras, man introduced the hunting ritual into the artistic process. But it is neither the ritual, nor the hunt itself that can be Fine Art.
The early hunter's ability to fine tune human instincts in order to efficiently acquire physical nourishment was in time transformed into rituals, then into ceremonial offerings and finally into cultural acts of Fine Art. In weaving together these analogies, it becomes obvious that the problem that modern photographers must face if they desire to produce Fine Art is that a cultural product is not the same as a technological product. Photography's relationship to Fine Art has been diminished in much the same way and for the same reasons as the relationship of man as predator to food prey has been diminished by technological efficiencies.
The fine art of the individual expert hunter is expressed not only within the relationship between predator and prey but also within the act of allowing others within the hunterís tribe to vicariously participate within that predatory relationship. To communicate this well requires creative elaboration. Early man as the top predator of course ultimately became man, the storyteller, and eventually the visual artist who to this day continues to enrich our lives by having left his esthetic story on cave walls.
Through total dependency on technology, not only is the value of a Fine Art product reduced by availability, the human element of richness within the story to be told is eliminated. The photographer as a fine artist is also the quintessential hunter; a gatherer of images who's success is defined by deliberately making an intentional mark of his self, by deliberately transforming the 'natural' visual image in order to tell the persuasive personal story. The production of true esthetic Art through photography and in spite of technology is also the natural and necessary next evolutionary step of man as predator. This is why photography remains the vanguard of the modern fine art movement. The commitment that one is a Photographer is not only the modern man's 'license to huntí; it also becomes the license for the Photographer to master new visual technology in order to produce Fine Art. But the technology of photography is merely the media. It is therefore essential to understand that not all images taken by an artist are art.
As an educated Artist, I of course allow myself the pleasure of taking photographs for many reasons other than Art. Sometimes I choose to photograph simply because I am exploring the potential possibilities, or because I choose to document that which is there. I often choose to photograph for the sake of others need. In doing this I am essentially sharing my skills, much like the early hunter shared the bounty that came from hunting. But there is a marked difference when I choose to do artistic photography that is difficult to explain. What I feel beneath the modern exterior surface is that as an artist photographer I take a premeditated step beyond the primordial instincts of predator. The first ranked images that I choose to create and manipulate really do possess the ancient power to tell stories that both nourishes and transforms me. I understand that I am actually seeking an image of myself within my photographic hunt. The images that I seek most from other things are those that reflect my nature and in that respect the predator is also the prey.
Roy D. Follendore III (Sandy) graduated with a B.F.A in Photography and a minor in Graphic Design from the Memphis Art College (formally the Memphis Academy of Fine Arts) He also holds a B.S. in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Electronics. Roy also received a Master of Science in Communication with a concentration in 'Interpersonal Communication' from the University of Memphis (formally Memphis State University).
Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved