Reading Photographs, Part I - originally published in PhotographyMatters.com, May 2008
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
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