Friday, February 24, 2012

Photography Symbolism and the Universal

Art communicates to us by symbols.  Symbols by their nature deal with universals.   In order for something to be a symbol it must be dealing with an abstract notion.  Abstraction deals with notions that are not tied to a particular thing.

Photographs, unlike other forms of art, are not well suited to express the universal, as they record precisely an image taken at a particular moment of a particular subject.  Problems arise however when dealing with subjects of history.   Photographs recording moments in time are rarely symbolic, unless there is some deeper meaning to the moment itself.   But recording a particular moment is not creating a symbol of a universal idea.  However photographs can be artistic, but it requires more than snapping photos of events to make art out of photography.

One way a photographer does who works symbolically is to take a photo of an event which is itself symbolic.  Photos of ceremonies or symbolic actions, such as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.  The photo doesn't just record a moment, becomes a depiction of perseverance and victory itself, symbolized through the struggle to raise the flag.   Again this goes back to the notion of history versus philosophy.  One way to look at the photo is to see the recording of the historic moment, but another is to see it symbolically, which is to see it more universally than just the particular group of men doing a particular action.

Another way photos can be symbolic is to strip them of particularity by choosing a subject which is unknown to the viewer, leaving only the expression of the portrait or an action that seems to express simply an idea, or an emotion.  Photos of objects in decay for instance can symbolize loss of hope, while a flower sprouting through the crack could express the opposite.

The focus is not on a scientific understanding of a moment but a symbolic understanding.   Bernini's David records his body twisting into action, the sling taut and ready to swing into action, his body like a spring.  He is poised but tense with anticipation, and one small detail, how he bites his lip, shows a doubt along with the confidence, an emotion that all of us can relate to.  The focus of the work is not on the moment as history, but as it relates to universal emotions and universal ideals.

Photographs can be art, but it is very difficult for them to express universals, especially when they are used to simply record the history of a particular individual.   So if for instance a monument to a person were to use nothing but photographs to memorialize a person, that memorial could be nothing more than a family album, recording the deeds, but not making any statement or conveying any universal notion beyond the particular events.  Stripped of meaning, it becomes a history lesson and not a work of art.  

No comments:

Post a Comment