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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Appreciating What You Don't Like

I have this big photo book that I can’t remember how I came to own, but whenever I look through it, I see very little that I like or appreciate. The reason I keep it around is 1) photos that don’t appeal to me challenge me to figuring out why, and 2) the comments of the photographer say about photography what I have stumbled around trying to say for decades.

The book is “Pictures I had to Take” The photographer is Joel Grey. Name sound familiar? Joel Grey (born April 11, 1932) is an American stage and screen actor, singer, and dancer, best known for his role as the Master of Ceremonies in both the stage and film adaptation of the Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret. He has won the Academy Award, Tony Award and Golden Globe Award.

Here is what he says about photography that has eluded me for all these years. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved taking photographs. It was always a complete and spontaneous pleasure for me. I never considered a tripod, zoom lens, or light meter. It was never work, only satisfaction. Looking . . . observing . . . recording . . .reflecting. Acts unspoiled by ambition, expectation, or competition. Being an actor, and in the public eye, this then, was a private act. Much of this book is about wonder . . . What is that . . .? How did that . . . ? Is that real . . .? Is that . . . ? Thus, picture taking for me often answers the question; it often solves the puzzle.”


The introduction to this book is by Duane Michals, an American photographer who s is largely self-taught. His work makes innovative use of photo-sequences, often incorporating text to examine emotion and philosophy.

He writes in the intro, “Actors are shamans. With sleight of hand they magically metamorphose into someone else. They shrink or appear larger the life. Their eyes squint; the voice rasps or bellows. Age descends upon their shoulders. Every gesture is studied and an atmosphere of another presence is brought into focus by their intense observation. They vanish as a trompe l’oeil.

Photographers are shamans. With sleight of hand, their camera obscuras stop time. For one-sixtieth of a second a sliver of a fleeting moment is extracted from the cavalcade of time as a specimen on film. In the constant bombardment of sensory assault we experience, the photographer observes a gesture, a dance of light on the fa├žade of appearance, a faded color. He absorbs what he sees into a moment of recognition. And with the alchemy of silver and other chemicals, the photograph becomes a trompe l’oeil. . .”

He goes one to say Joel, ”had to take these photographs because he is a visual voluptuary addicted to the subtle pleasures of light, color and form. “

That is reflective in the selections of photographs that appear in this book.

The two photographers really do identify how I feel about photography. While I may not find many of Joel’s images in this book appealing, they are a pleasure to him and they are private thoughts that speak to and (I assume) for him. That photographic approach appeals to me. Like not agreeing but seeing the point and finding it helpful in gaining an understanding of something I had not thought much about. That is why this book will have a place in my home for as long as I have a life.







Examples shamelessly extracted from “Pictures I had to Take”. If you like them then the linked title will take you to Amazon.com where you can buy the book.