How long does it take to read a page of a novel? A minute or two? An average length poem? Somewhat longer, and you’ll probably reread it. A photo? What about 1.5 seconds? Because, in my observation, that’s about how long many people spend looking at a photo. In a newspaper maybe? Yeah, but also in an art gallery. And I’m not specifically referring to Photospace gallery here; this observation has been made across a heap other photographic exhibitions in numerous galleries. An example; while at the Magnum Photo exhibition at Te Papa a few years ago, I observed many visitors’ eyes flick from photo to catalogue to next photo, mentally ticking off images as fast as they could: seen that one, seen that one…. This is a justifiable approach when confronted with an exhibition comprising several hundred photographs. I decided to tackle that show by spending my time looking closely at a much smaller selection of photos, knowing I couldn’t take in the whole thing. It worked, but I missed a lot too. (Buy the book and browse at leisure?)
We encounter too many photographs these days, in newspapers, magazines and on the internet and television, so it is sensible to ration our time spent looking at each one. Trouble is, this conditioning stays with us in the art gallery; we could try to leave it at the gallery door. Our larger institutional galleries have sometimes made this difficult, as above, by presenting exhibitions of too many works. It’s often about scale equalling importance.
The Slow Food movement, most people are aware, is in part a reaction to fast food. The idea is not that the food should take a long time to prepare, but that we slow down the pace of our busy life long enough to enjoy the meal, and in doing so benefit from the other things around that; the social aspects as well as the food itself, and the break from whatever else we’re doing. And it carries with it the concept of respect: for the food, the provider, the company and enjoyment of life in general. Think of this next time you encounter a photograph or exhibition of interest. Just make the time; it’s a creative act.
A 2003 exhibition at Victoria University’s Adam Gallery, Slow Release, featured some of the usual suspects; Peter Peryer, Anne Noble, Ann Shelton Fiona Pardington, Gavin Hipkins, and a couple of newbies (at the time); Fiona Amundsen and Yvonne Todd. ‘As a collective group, the works promise to hold the viewer in the act of looking and to reward with meaning.’ To live up to this claim in its publicity material, Slow Release was going to have to deliver a bunch of pretty damn good works. And, I’m happy to say, it did. (You thought I was going to rip into it, yes?) Liked the show, liked the works (mostly) and, more to the point, I liked the title. I took it with me to carry about for when I need to slow down to get the most out of some other exhibition.
The point is that most photos that are worth spending your time with simply are not intended to impart their meaning, their content, their beauty, their poetry to you in 1.5 seconds, unless you’re Mr Spock of the starship Enterprise. Press photographers often shoot for impact and fast delivery, and fair enough, because it helps sell newspapers; but exhibiting photographers don’t always go for impact. Or if they do, there’s usually something more going on once the impact wears off, because it is a temporary quality. (Think of Christine Webster’s Black Carnival for impact, or Yvonne Todd’s series of beauticians in Slow Release.) The artists spend a lot of time, energy and resources to put the work in front of you, and so does the gallery; and that deserves the respect of the viewer. Yet I’ve often seen gallery visitors skim around a roomful of photos in less time than it took them to get from outside into the room. I wonder why they even bother. So they can tell their friends they saw the show?
This is intended as the first in a series of posts on Reading Photographs, and its message is simple: slow down and really look. Take your time and the photographs will begin to reward you. Apologies for the somewhat lecturing tone. I’ll back off it a little in Part II, if you’re still reading.
‘… to reward with meaning.’ I need to get into that last word. Photography is a kind of language, right? A photo can be likened to a poem, and most poets don’t just string words together because they like the sounds they make. Sure, that’s part of it, but poems have meaning, even if it differs for each reader. Photographs have meaning too; so how do we begin to extract it? Next time…, and the time after that….
by james | 1 May, 2008
(Links removed from below, as they are mostly no longer live.)
- Remiss63, on May 1st, 2008 at 6:00 pm Said: I appreciate your admonition to slow down when viewing works of art. I’ve been forced through major exhibitions like cattle herding and you end up with a bad taste in your mouth. All that waiting in line just to be force fed art on a conveyor belt. Such exhibitions virtually force someone truly interested in the work to buy the book, so you can look, read, look again, etc.
So then a question arises (briefly touched upon in your piece at the end of the first paragraph): should I buy the book? Or, should I just buy the book? What is the value of seeing original photographs displayed in a gallery? Should we simply accept the fact that the great majority of work that we’ve “seen” (Strand, Weston, Cunningham, etc.) is printed in a book? Is a high-quality LCD screen an acceptable medium to view photographs?
I mention these questions as a means of provoking some thoughtful response, not with the idea of suggesting a correct answer. In the same way that photographs have meaning (yes, they do have meaning) requiring of the viewer an investment of time, thought, reaction, reflection, and reconsideration, we also have to consider the medium and manner of their presentation and how it modifies, enhances, detracts, or otherwise changes the meaning and experience of an image.
James, your title for this series “Reading Photographs” is excellent. We need to consider viewing images in a way like reading a poem or a short story (as a full, complete expression of an idea, not merely a fragment of something as a page from a novel).
Reading and viewing are absolutely creative acts. More people need to consider and understand the implications of this fact. Too many people are lazy from being force fed images all day from every possible source of media. With the fast food mentality of “seen it, next . . .” people are looking at photographs with the wrong frame of mind.
They presumably have a blank page to be filled providing the viewer entertainment, diversion, or something similar (i.e., the viewer presupposes a passive role). They will never learn to appreciate the meaning of art using this method. I predict the average viewing time for photographs will continue to become less and less with time in the same way television viewers demand visual stimulation with greater and greater frequency. Take a look at some movies from the 1950s and pay attention. It will often feel like scenes are too long, edits to slow, and the whole process seems to require too much of an investment on the part of the viewer. People born after 1980 will often find such films almost unbearable to watch. Similarly, I find many children’s animated programs too aggressive in the constant visual changes that seem to be necessary to maintain the attention of overstimulated viewers.
In today’s world, time has become an incredibly valuable commodity and we are constantly looking for ways to get more done in less time, multi-task, etc. I recently read of some experiments going on presently to help speed up the way in which we view emails by flashing text rapidly on the screen forcing the viewer to follow the gist of the message without getting tangled up in the sentence structure. Is this how our language is developing? Will we really read “six word novels”? Will 140 characters become the defacto basic form for interpersonal communication? What does all this have to do with appreciating photography?
Somehow, . . . I think we can look forward to James offering us some thoughtful suggestions.
- james, on May 1st, 2008 at 6:51 pm Said: Great comment thanks, Remiss. Your thoughts will feed into my future posts in this series and on other issues. Makes me feel a lot less like a voice in the wilderness.
I wonder if the 63 in your handle is your year of birth. That would put you into the “approaching middle age and becoming grumpy as hell and more exasperated as each month passes” bracket that I’m finding myself in these days.
The question of the medium and presentation, e.g. book versus gallery/print; I think that’s a great topic for a separate discussion, although it is also relevant to the reading photographs issue. More on that later.
- microphen, on May 2nd, 2008 at 3:00 pm Said: nice james. i fully agree. even though i’ve been one of those people to glance around and walk out too - depending on mood as much as anything else.
i went to that magnum show 3 times just to take it all in. every time i was taken by different works. as you’d expect when there’s 300 images to take in.
i’ve just come back from mary newton gallery (http://www.marynewtongallery.com/). in the current show they have some works by mary macpherson. they are ‘boring’ images.
at least they may well be seen as that by many people. i loved them, partly because they ask ‘why would someone take this photo’. they require the viewer to look, to give them time.
because of the ubiquity of the photography it seems that a lot of people don’t delineate their roles/purposes - advertising, personal snapshot, editorial image, artwork. i think this is something people need to be taught, or at the very least, made to think about.
just to get in some self-publicity, opening tonight at courtenay place park, is a photographic show co-curated by me. the works intentionally blur the line between art and advertising, largely because they are big images in an outdoor public space.
the way people respond to these will be fascinating.
- Remiss63, on May 2nd, 2008 at 5:26 pm Said: James, I’m glad I can help you feel like less of a solitary voice in the wilderness (though I wouldn’t mind a little more wilderness myself, at least a bit of literal wilderness).
You’re spot on regarding my numerals as well as my temperament, though I wasn’t sure if my grumpy exasperation had to do with my being an architect rather than a photographer.
In any case, I’m planning to stick around ’til I’m 120 or so, that way I won’t have to face middle age for more than a decade. It’ll also give me a chance to pursue cramming several more lives into this one.
- deb, on May 4th, 2008 at 6:41 pm Said: I think that visual literacy is not something that is taught at any level… it certainly wasn’t when i was growing up. It wasn’t until I reached university and took art history that i really learned anything at all about “reading” images.
I have to confess that I have been guilty of the behaviour you describe in museums and galleries. Sometimes it’s all so overwhelming, and you don’t want to feel like you’ve missed anything.
On the other hand, when I think about how I like to travel… I much prefer to cover a smaller area, take my time, really see and get to know a place. As opposed to the 10 cities in 12 days Contiki type tours.
So… maybe exhibitions should be smaller? Maybe an exhibition should be five images, no more. What do you think? Then of course, economies of scale come into play, and people’s perception of value for money.
I hope you intend to enlighten us with further posts on ways we can slow down and “read” images.
- Jodi, on May 5th, 2008 at 4:17 pm Said: Hi James,
This is something that I have noticed much of myself, and I find it very frustrating. Although in saying this, I do notice it equally so when I walk into any type of exhibition, be it painting, sculpture, video etc. I don’t think it is a problem of photography alone.
Is it that the work is simply not catching peoples attentions the way it should? Surely a great piece of work should stop someone in their tracks? Or is it that the one of the hardest weaknesses for humans to combat is showing up, that is laziness?
I believe it is likely to be a mixture of both. Perhaps people expect art to behave in the same way as a t.v program, look at it, move on, there’s no need to think about it, is there!?
The role of the viewer must be equally important (or very close to it) of the artist. As it is the viewers interpretation that tells the final story in the end. How to achieve this!? No idea! Apart from each of us taking the responsibility our-selves to do just this.
Good point brought up James, looking forward to seeing more discussions such as this!