“In a way, I’ve always been at war with what the still photograph did,” says artist Duane Michals. Over the past few years, as social media platforms have risen to everyday prominence, and photo-centric apps like Instagram permeate our existence on an hourly basis, I have experienced a growing, nasty discontent with my own life, as I compare it to the lives and images of others. Comparison indeed has proved to be the thief of joy.
During class this week, my History & Theory of Photography professor providentially mentioned an artist whose work brilliantly articulates the thoughts I have been having. Duane Michals, a commercial and fine art photographer, has created work that, since its inception, focuses on exposing the limitations of a single image. Photography’s main constraint, according to Michals, is that “it just reports the facts. It describes.” One of his works that captivates me is a project in which he handwrites in the border around his formally impeccable monochrome images: “THERE ARE THINGS HERE NOT SEEN IN THIS PHOTOGRAPH.” He proceeds to name the goings-on outside of the frame such as: “My shirt was wet with perspiration,” or, “A derelict was walking toward me to ask for money.” By adding text to his images, he pushes the boundaries of his own photographs and exposes their shortcomings.
Here, Michals appropriately calls attention to the limitations of photography and seeks to expand what the medium can do. My peers and I admit that we are prone to accepting photographs at face value, and assuming that what we are seeing has a 1 to 1 correspondence with reality. The medium of photography, though wonderful and beautiful, is limited in that it does not–or rather cannot–communicate the whole picture. There is danger in assuming an image’s single story.
In addition, we only see images that portray realms of “the good life”–replete with perfect-looking people and attractive scenes. By excluding one part of life and including the other beautiful areas, it is easy to believe that, in this instance, the excluded part simply doesn’t exist. For example, after seeing photos of a friend’s party on Facebook where everyone is smiling and (shockingly) no one looks sweaty or nervous, we might assume that everyone was smiling the whole night and sweat and nerves played no part in it. This, of course, would be impossible. Sweat is almost as unavoidable as party anxiety, and the two often go hand in hand. There is danger in believing that what is revealed is all that there is–we must be mindful of the unspoken concealed. Of course, I recognize that there is a distinction between commercial photography (where a product is sold) and lifestyle photography, where the “product” is a certain version of the self, or a certain “brand” of life. Often in lifestyle photography (Kinfolk magazine, Tumblr, travel blogs, etc.), the ‘everyday’ is photographed, but staged in such a way that it is no longer true to the everyday human experience.
Philosopher James K. A. Smith says that we tend to evaluate others and ourselves on the basis of image. Because we live in an image-saturated culture, we are constantly bombarded (and bombard ourselves) with scenes of “the good life.” It follows, then, that we become the kind of people who only know how to evaluate ourselves and others on the basis of image–for image is all we see. My challenge for us all is to restrain the impulse to compare ourselves with others according to surface appearance. We must tell ourselves, “This is not the full story. There is more than this.” When we do this, I believe we have a more holistic experience and appropriate response to the image. The look that certain trendy photos present is one that ignores our brokenness and promises its own kind of salvation. The implicit promise is that little you, with your pimples, your body odor, and your awkward conversational stumblings, can become whole, even new, if you simply look like the holy ones pictured here!
I realize that while we are on this earth, it will be impossible to ever truly tell it like it is through a photograph. We can tell it how we see it, and we can fight against the way photographs are misused and misunderstood, but we will never be able to escape the limitations of our frame, and truly capture the heart of something. Yet, I strongly believe working against a photograph’s constraints is something worth doing, as Michals does. Sincerity and honesty in our everyday lives and in our art can be a refuge for others who exclaim, “You, too?!” when let in on the lackluster story behind a pretty facade. There is a sweet, heavenly freedom in being released from comparison, and from the pressure to cultivate our own images and constrain them to a standard. Create good things, to be sure–but let’s assume a posture of sincerity when something inside us screams to write around the edges of our photos and admit to the pimples and sweat. (And, for a good laugh, visit www.pinterestfail.com)