The Worst Photograph Ever! An Open Letter…
I would like to say that it was nice to meet you today, while myself and several others were out on a Photography Walk around Stafford town centre, but I was a little perplexed by your reaction. As you seemed uninterested in our opinions on the matter, in favour of your own entrenched ideas, I felt that perhaps corresponding in this way might be the only option available to communicate with you why I do not feel the subject matter we were looking at was the ‘worst thing’ to photograph, as you put it.
When you initially stopped and seemed interested in what we were doing I assumed that our encounter may have taken the same route as many others. You would stop, jovially enquire what we were doing, and then either invite further conversation or walk away bemused at the little group of photographers gathered around the door to an abandoned bar.
As it were, you chose a much different approach. It was interesting to hear that you had photographic experience yourself, I am sure that you had many happy customers in your wedding photographer days. In your questioning of our group leader’s credentials and qualifications I think there was an inference that you also had done some photography teaching. All of which I am sure were ways in which you were trying to impose the authority of your opinion when you exclaimed that ‘we shouldn’t be taking photographs of that!’ and admonished our tutor with ‘you shouldn’t be telling them to photograph that!’
As it stands, our group leader, Dawn Jutton, a very talented fine art photographer with a wealth of knowledge, and teaching experience, was not ‘telling’ any of us to photograph that door, or the shattered window pane within it. It was actually one of the ladies in the group with us on the free Photography Walk arranged as part of the Stafford Green Arts Festival that pointed out how the broken glass looked like a spider web.
After having worked with Dawn during many photography sessions, as well as attending the women’s photography group that she runs, I can assure you that influencing the subject matter of other photographers is not something that she aspires to do. In fact, through her teaching it is implicit that photography is an expression of yourself, that you should photograph what takes your interest, and that a group of photographers will, and indeed should, all photograph very different things when presented with the same space or subject. Contrary to your belief, that is exactly how we had come to stop at the door in the first place.
I would also like to address your assertion that this particular subject matter would make the ‘worst photograph ever’. Because I am sure I can find many images from my early photographer days, using disposable cameras when I was a child, that yielded results far worse than this! Fingers in shot, out of focus, blurry, over/under-exposed pictures that when you find in a shoe box in the back of the wardrobe you instinctively start to contort you neck to make sense of the clumsy, unintended abstraction. These are, in my opinion, far worse photographs, even taking into account the nostalgic charm of naive ineptitude.
In a similar vein, I find it difficult to understand how you can make such an assertion about the quality of our photographs based solely from the subject matter. Certainly, this might not be an immediately aesthetically pleasing image, but is that not the job of the artist/photographer? To see unconventional beauty and reveal it to the world through their chosen medium. To inspire people to think in new ways about the world around them. To challenge perspectives through their interpretation of the world. Having not seen, or inquired to see, how we had interpreted the subject matter surely adds a limitation to your viewpoint.
I would, however, counter this by also saying that while you did not see any value in the subject matter itself, I certainly did. Firstly, I have developed an interest in doorways since my time in New Orleans. I find myself drawn to these gateways between the private and the public space. They have a personality that can be quite charismatic, inviting the questioning of what lies beyond. But perhaps it wasn’t the notion of photographing a door in particular that so offended you.
Perhaps what you found so distasteful was the state of the door itself. As the entrance to a bar that has been closed for many years, this particular door has been left to weather the elements. Maybe you inferred that there was some unsavoury fine art pretentiousness to our interest in the smashed window pane? Perhaps that is justified. But it does not make your opinion any more valid than ours.
For me there were myriad points of interest. Yes, as one of our group had noted, the pattern of the shattered glass was quite beautiful. But there was also a contrast highlighted by this smashed pane; the fragility of the glass next to the imposing and sturdy doors. A solid threshold, yet someone had identified its only weakness. The uniform geometry of the door, with its repeated vertical and horizontal lines was also at odds with the disarrayed cracking pattern of the glass.
In fact, it was precisely this broken glass pane that created the interest in this whole scene for me. It invited a narrative. Suggested a history. It’s juxtaposition with a sign banning advertising material may suggest a certain reading. But from my perspective, it was the contrast between the shattered window and the ‘Welcome’ sign above the door that implied there was an image here that had an element of social commentary.
Again, perhaps this all seems like the pretence of fine art rambling to you. But that is not to say that what I choose to see, and indeed capture on camera, has any less value or validation because it does not marry with your view of the world or the purpose of photography. Personally I do not want to take ‘pretty’ pictures. And by that I mean that I am not interested in examining and exploring the traditionally accepted concept of beauty through my work. It has been done. People choose to photograph flowers, picturesque landscapes, and cute animals everyday. It is not something I aspire to emulate.
There is nothing is wrong with those subjects. And if taking photographs of those things brings you pleasure then it is something that you should continue to do. Indeed, just because it is not my sole photographic passion, does not mean I have not been drawn to these subjects at times. My point is that they do not necessarily bring me pleasure, and they may not for someone else. For me my camera is not just a way to record something pretty or pleasing, it is a way of negotiating the world around me. Trying to find meaning and creating interesting narratives. Challenging the viewer of my work’s notions of aesthetic value and perceptions of a space or object.
Photography is not just a medium to create ‘pretty images’. Yes, those have their place. But it has so much more to offer. It can be a tool for fine artists to express themselves and offer unique perspectives. It can present us with challenging and shocking imagery to make brutally clear the horrors and injustices of the world. It can breathe a new life into an abandoned area and create a previously unconsidered atmosphere. It can speak to people in ways that words simply cannot. It can be blatantly obvious, or cryptically abstract. In short, your only limitation with the medium is within yourself and your perception of it.
You took the time to stop today, but you did not take the time to listen. If you had, in addition to not having such a confrontational demeanour, then perhaps I, and the other individuals in our group, could have communicated these ideas to you. You may not have agreed. We may not have persuaded you of the value in what we were choosing to focus on, but we may have at least had the pleasure of a spirited debate upon the purpose and value of photography and artistic subject matter.
And that would have been great! I do not believe that my opinion is sacred. I am not an authority on aesthetic beauty. Virtually no one is. Because it is intrinsically a subjective matter. We do not all find visual pleasure in the same place, and that is what makes us all unique. The individuality of our tastes creates a glorious mix of ideas and values that we are free to explore within our art and life. My perception of aesthetic value is no more valid than yours, however, you have to be open to that fact. It is a shame that you had such an impassioned reaction to our work and chose to express that in a confrontational way. I would never assume that I have the authority to do so with others, and as a fellow photographer I am saddened that you could not afford us the same courtesy.