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Long ago, our visual field was perpetually open to all elements of the sky (as in the sun, the clouds, the stars, the moon, etc.). Today, our access to our skies is partial and occluded. ... And while it's correct to say that this merely restates the patently obvious, it's nevertheless important to be reminded of the obvious, qua truth, so that it may be contemplated.
Based in: Toronto, Canada
SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE NATURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Photography invites the observer of the object, as concretized by the photograph, to see it, simply, as interesting: as an object of worthy of contemplation, as something that is aesthetically elevated and as something that engenders a prolonged feeling of awe, a lasting experience … and as something to which the observer may return again and again and find yet more to contemplate.
Now, suppose a given photograph fails to be “interesting” or “impactful”. This may be the consequence of some failure on the part of the photographer … but not necessarily. It may, equally, reflect a failure on the part of the photo observer. After all, while photographers are responsible for presenting the photographic object, by means of their artistic technique, in a manner that generates inquisitiveness and aesthetic appreciation on the part of observers, it is the latter that nevertheless retain responsibility for the range of their own imagination, passion and capacity for enjoyment.
The photographer cannot really impress the kind of viewer who remains stubbornly unprepared to be enchanted by the world that holds and envelops all of us. The photographer must of course invite the viewer to contemplate the photographer’s chosen object of interest – the object that the photographer has brought to the viewer’s attention through the fixing-action of photograph-taking. But the viewer must remain open to the invitation. The viewer must in one way or another be prepared to find the object compelling, and worthy of interest no matter how “mundane” it may appear to be at a superficial level. The subject of a photograph, any subject, fixed as it is in the photograph, can always be substantiated and transfigured into something more than it is by itself … into something beyond the mundane. The only difference between highly interesting photographs, and those less so, is the relative ease and speed with which this transformation happens.
Whether or not the interaction between photographer and viewer is successful, whether a given photograph fails to be “interesting”, the object of the photograph, in and of itself, cannot be said to bear any responsibility for the outcome. The object itself is aesthetically inert, just as the material universe, the sheer “stuff” of the surrounding world, is strictly speaking morally barren. It is up to us, together, as photographer-artist and photograph-observer, to imbue the object with aesthetic value. The ancients may have been able to say that beauty, or aesthetic or moral value, resides within the object itself. But we, on the other hand, inhabit a “disenchanted” world, and are therefore forced to seek out the beauty in things by means of our own imagination, by means of the deliberate workings of our own minds.
How, then, do we find beauty in things? This question, if the above claims are at all plausible, translates into asking how it is that we make beauty in things? I do not claim to be able to answer this sort of question. However, in my own photographic practise I tend to adopt a partially “formalist” approach, where the inner structure of the photograph, its immediate content, holds the key to its “interest”. But this is only a partial answer. If an observer were to ask me, “Why should I look at this? What is of interest here? Where is the impact?”, I would have to point to something more than the internal, formal structure of my images.
To the extent that I am able to offer any kind of authoritative comment on my own photographic work (which is doubtful), the objects that I choose to present to the viewer through photographic production, i.e., via the fixing action of photography, are objects of interest because they are often things that are simultaneously products both of human choice-making, of artifice, and of nature at the same time. In other words, in many of my images I attempt to combine human artifacts, human constructs, together with non-artifacts, i.e., with natural objects, and especially nature’s “hyper-objects”, things like the sky or horizons or water, etc. Alternatively, in my photos I often attempt to present a juxtaposition between the “artificial” and the “natural”. This juxtaposition, this contrast, is something that I often contemplate, both in my photographic craft and in my scholarship.
Take, for example, photographs of decaying or decayed buildings, or support beams, or furniture, and the like: at one point in time, the contours of the built/constructed objects took shape in the exact manner in which they did as a consequence of human labour, i.e., through a process of deliberate decision making, indeed through an innumerable series of choices, both on a large-scale (e.g., design) and at the micro-level (e.g., paint application, etc.). And yet, over time, nature intervened, dissolving those artificial contours. The end result – and the point at which the photograph is taken – is an object with a strange kind of beauty, and thus a photographic image worthy of contemplation. At least, the hope is that some measure of that strange beauty found in the object by the photographer has been successfully captured and translated into the photographic image, through careful attention to formal composition.
But note, further: this interplay between human creations (the “artificial”) and the mechanics of nature (the “natural”) need not be represented so bluntly as in photographs of derelict human constructs. Take a building put up against the sky by an architect, a “skyscraper”. The architect challenges the sky, seeking to impose the architect’s “vision” of how this particular bit of space, this segment of our visual spectrum, ought to appear to us. And yet, the sky responds in turn, by refusing to stand perfectly still as the building’s backdrop, for it has its own, ever-changing moods - its weather, among other variations - that continually illuminate and re-illuminate the building’s façade, thus varying its image, its appearance-to-us. Likewise, the electrician crisscrosses our urban skies with wiring, and yet the sky somehow overwhelms these cuts. And, likewise again, the construction worker, supported by a colossal infrastructure of machinery and labour-power, hoists massive steel beams up over one paved expressway to create another atop, which in turn solidifies and strengthens the intricate latticework of the very infrastructure that made each expressway possible. And yet, very quickly, the constructor’s steel beams and concrete slabs themselves become covered by a latticework of rust and mildew. I think there is a peculiar kind of beauty to be found (made?) here.
Of course, although it is a recurring theme for me, this effort to capture the beauty of the interplay between artifice and nature is not my exclusive preoccupation. Rather, I recognize that moments of beauty, in general, are exceedingly rare, and our capacity to make them determinate through photography is quite limited. The photographer’s more humble vocation is therefore to simply follow through on their inquisitiveness about the objects that surround us, and then to invite the observer to a moment of contemplation (i.e., of the object fastened within the photograph, as chosen by the photographer). Only then, perhaps, to induce and to foster an experience, an extended perception, of beauty. Of course, some few great photographers go beyond this, even, and somehow manage to present us with images that approach the sublime.
But how does photography, photography in particular, manage to achieve any of this? How does photography approach aesthetic greatness? Especially in contrast to other art forms.
I think it must have something to do with this: the nature and mechanics of photography are such that the photographer is highly constrained in the range of choices he or she is able to make in producing the photographic image. This is because the photographic image is itself highly constrained by the captured object, indeed by the external world as a whole. This means photographers often have limited material to work with, and from which to generate a lasting aesthetic experience. The sculptor, the painter, the musician, and even less the author, let alone the poet – each of them does not have such constraints as the photographer. (Consider this: the author-poets’ boundaries are, ultimately, only those of imagination and language itself ... what a vast resource!)
The essence of photography consists, precisely, in this limitedness, both in terms of the source material for image-making and, thus, the photographer’s capacity for aesthetic choice. This is also the greatness, the “genius”, of photography: the photographer is, ultimately, severely constrained as to how the object will present itself through the fixing-action of the photographic image. Of course, digital manipulation, greatly expands the photographer’s possibilities; but my lament, here, is that the digital age, by vastly extending the photographer’s decision-making range, and by placing photography closer to painting, has made non-manipulation a choice in itself, a deliberate decision not to manipulate, and has therefore, to some extent, undermined that which, in my view, is the core characteristic of photography. Again, consider this: the photographer aims to achieve within the bounds of a, typically, square or rectangular frame, that which the novelist may explore within the vast expanse of the pages of a book. For the photographer, the object will almost always exceed the boundaries of the photographic frame, whether that object is a mere physical thing (as in formalistically oriented photography that emphasizes composition) or an emotion (as in the substantive photography of the documentary mode, or portraiture).
What is remarkable, and what makes for truly astonishing art in the photographic form, is that some few photographers are able to capture and encapsulate the object, as a whole in itself, despite the otherwise severe constraints of photography. They are thus able to hold the object up for us to contemplate as a true object of beauty and, occasionally, the sublime.
My ancestry is Turkish, however, I was born in Svishtov, Bulgaria, a small town on the Danube river. During the 1980s, my parents and I lived in Tripoli, Libya, where I attended an international school for the children of ex-pats. There, I was introduced to photography by one of my all-time best and favourite teachers. I have been an avid photographer ever since. I currently live in Toronto, Canada, with my wife and two young children. I am formerly a practicing lawyer, however, I recently returned to school to pursue a Ph.D. degree in philosophy, with my focus being on environmental philosophy and legal and political theory. My current passion for photography, and the series of photos I have been working on more recently, are partly informed by my scholarly work on environmental issues.
For instance, my series titled “Landscapes of Modernity” is an attempt to translate some of my philosophical ideas - especially as it pertains to the concept of the "Anthropocene" - into a visual-photographic format. I aim to reflect on the phenomenology and experience of our dwelling in contemporary urban landscapes, i.e., spaces that are pervaded entirely by artificial human constructs, where our visual field is colonized by an ever-present and ever-expanding array of massive, monolithic, cuboid structures. In essence, rather than focus on scholarship alone, I am attempting to express some of my philosophical ideas in the language of photographic art. And my hope is that my photographs manage to capture the dual and conflicted nature of this modern moment, i.e., this period of modernity wherein we are confronted by staggering beauty combined with a certain severity and oppressiveness.
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