Stories and Themes? Hmmm... Well that depends...
My customary cautions apply...
Parental Advisory: contains bad words
Trigger-Warning: contains facts
Safe-Space Guidance: contains opinions with which you may disagree
Allergy Advice: contains ideas you may consider nuts
Picture for illustration purposes. Actual reality may differ.
Gather round, Coronal chums, I wanna tell you a story. And it’s a big one. I may lose some of you along the way before the tale is all told, but tell it I must.
It’s a story about stories, as it happens. Well… that’s what it’s initially about anyway. As events unfold it will probably swerve off-course and, like a painful-to-evacuate, diabolically oversized turd, only after repeated attempts to flush it away, will it eventually disappear down the pan of soiled affectation, right round the s-bend of contaminated tangentiality, straight into the murky dominion of quirky twisted logic, where it truly belongs. You know what I’m like.
Well, you will in a minute.
Because I’m back, for your delight, delectation and derision, with another generous helping of remorseless philosophical jollity. So, buckle-up boys and girls (and others… you know who you are) blatherings ahoy. Join me as we take a mind-altering expedition into deepest bullshittery...
And let’s begin with some good old-fashioned abuse masquerading as scholarly moralising, shall we?
Have you got a story in your photo? No? You ain’t even so much as a noob then. Rather literal, isn’t it? Hmmm. It’s somewhat representative, your work. It’s all conceptual now, you know. No concept? No art. Have you embedded or referenced a theme throughout your galleries? Everyone who’s anyone is doing themes nowadays, didn’t you know? What have you actually said with that shot? Are you still taking pictures of stuff and not about stuff? Have you no self-respect as a photographer?
Yes, dear readers, make no mistake, the work may be compositionally slovenly, objectively poor or pitifully crude (and, let’s face it, it’s frequently all three) but, no matter! Redemption from the culture of mediocrity - which is routinely, shamelessly and, more to the point, thoroughly oversubscribed today - is at hand. Rejoice! Salvation can be yours at the low cost of merely insisting that your viewer consider the legitimacy of the themes implied or included, rather than the aesthetic and intrinsic value of the content created. Yes, disguise your lack of talent and knowledge and divert valid criticism away from any inherent lack of hard-earned accomplishment in your work by explicitly ensuring the viewer understands that literally everything is more important to you than a profound and essential understanding of the genre in which you practise. Nowadays you can manipulate the trajectory of any critical enquiry to your advantage by objectifying a theme or a story and, bingo! You’re a creative of note.
Or are you?
Can anyone really just meander into this arena of endeavour with no relevant experience, no discernible skills, no appreciation of artistic inheritance, no awareness of the wisdom of the greats (whose images for the past two centuries have festooned the walls of photography’s ancestral halls) and, with neither innate ability nor knowledge of technique (nor any inclination to pursue, understand or master any) produce work of relevance, purely because it either tells a blatant story or manifests a currently ‘pertinent’ theme?
Let’s find out.
Oh no. He’s back. That effing Graham bloke. Geez.
Yes. In today’s episode… I’ve got bones to pick from the cliquey carcass of social media prejudice. I’ve got exceptions to take with online opinion tarted-up as fact. I’ve got resentments to voice about misconception masquerading as maxim and, horror of horrors, I even have a story to tell…
A story? Geez, Benjamin, you esurient landslide of incontinent verbal confusion yet simultaneously didactic mastermind of insanely inspired accomplishment, do you have to? Is it a long one? Does it have a point? Does it fit with our a-priori assumptions about the state of the art? If not, then just go away, will you? I hear you cry.
Sorry guys, it’s my blog and I’ll waffle if I want to…
Even if it’s to no-one from here on.
Picture for illustration purposes. Actual reality may differ.
Right. Before we set off on our voyage of dazzling academic illumination - well, I’ve kind of started, set the tone and established a bit of a narrative already really, haven’t I? - despite the impudence and combative derision in the above preamble of anecdotally-driven drivel and artificially-simulated sentiment, I’d like to declare that I love a good story as much as the next geek. Just putting that out there, OK? And my personal preference is for a ripping yarn that teleports me away from the relative mundanity and general predictability of daily existence into a whole nother galaxy, dimension or universe. I am, unapologetically, a sci fi fan.
And a writer who repeatedly accomplishes spectacular visions of speculative cosmic fantasy with unabashed gusto and alacritous aplomb is Banks. Ian M that is. Some of you nerds out there will no doubt be familiar with his work. Tragically, no longer with us (he passed, in his late-fifties, in 2013) and his opined-for volume that was to thoroughly chronicle the events of his imagined Idiran War was never written. Some of you will understand and empathise with the grief of my unrequited anticipation for this concluding opus; and those who have yet to discover the universe of The Culture that Banks envisioned so spectacularly will surely, once the voyage is over, lament it in years to come. Newsflash: If you are a nerd and you are not yet familiar with his oeuvre, then you have a glorious reading future in front of you. And I recommend you start here: Excession, The Algebraist and Feersum Endjin
If, however, you are not geeky or nerdy, if you don’t like sci-fi, intergalactic adventure, distant-future conjecture, call it what you will, then regardless of any objective technical analysis of his undeniably dazzling wordsmithery, you’ll never be able to invest yourself into his narratives. If your preference is for facts & history, or romance, or auto-bios, or true stories, he’s just not for you. His fictional universe will be so remotely detached from your tastes for it ever to establish any authority or, more importantly, provide you with any entertainment. If you struggle with the sci-fi category generally then the things in Banks’ writing you will be expected to accept; the characters you will need to invest in; the outlandish phonetic dialogue you will have to live with; the technology you will have to take for granted; all will relentlessly conspire against your reading fulfillment. You will be continually thinking WTF is this gobbledegookery? This cosmos of utter insanity?
Geez. Where the hell am I going with this? Oh yea. My point here is that, notwithstanding any personal reading proclivities, Banks’ mastery of language is undeniable. And this has a bearing on the subject herein… His story would be stifled without the poetic prose and his prose would be stifled without the poetic story. I believe technical skill and personal style share a complimentary co-dependency and must co-exist as equals for the work to be considered complete. And I believe this to be true in photography also. Well, I would, wouldn’t I?
But Benjamin, you coruscating luminary of hypothetical bravado yet concomitantly excruciating inundation of inconsequential pretension, why should we listen to a solitary word you have to say on these matters? You are just a picture-taker, and a merely modestly-talented one at that… You exclaim.
Well, my fellow Coronals, allow me to expound.
Where I’m coming from, in my late stage of existence (I could shuffle off this mortal coil at any minute and it would not be a statistical surprise…) time is rapidly evaporating for devoting any precious remaining moments of my life to stuff I don’t enjoy creating or consuming. And, putting it bluntly (unless it comes as a recommendation from a source I trust implicitly) if a story’s not a beautifully-crafted, bizarre, sexy, pan-dimensional, science-fiction space-operatic drama then I’m probably not interested in devoting a week or two of my life to entertaining it. But that doesn’t mean the legion other genres are meaningless or that I couldn't appreciate their methodological brilliance. They’re just not for me given the time I have left. My point here is, much like the mediocre photos that peddle their validity via (to me) irrelevant themes, political biases or inconsequential third-party stories, it’s not enough for me; all art has to be executed well to grab my attention and validate my appreciation. And that's the reality. For me it is anyway.
But, then again, so's this:
Picture for illustration purposes. Actual reality may differ.
This is massively subjective, I know and, of course, you may disagree entirely... Well, good for you to be able to suffer mediocrity for a compulsive commitment to hip politics, trendy themes or cheesy stories.
But Benjamin, you penetratingly rapt and discerning sage of focused verbal precision yet simultaneously miscellaneous commotion of meandering, pointless gibberish; what evidence do you have for your preposterous proclamations? I hear you enquire.
Aha. Well. I’m glad you asked. I have a theory about why, after a lifetime of toggery, we shoot what we do and inhabit the creative spaces we do. And this is slightly off-topic, I know, but it does have a bearing on the subject of the post and I intend to return to the theme of stories (theme? Stories? Argh. The irony!). It’s down to personal vision and visual style. These are topics I discuss at length in my presentations and college lectures. And for good reason, I believe. For they are the deeply-individual, exclusive foundations and the artistically-driven, singular structures arising from those foundations that together form the architecture of our unique creative signatures. Without developing these vital elements and crafting them into our work, we can all too easily remain indistinct, derivative or generic. I mean… Just look at my shit. They don’t call me Old Captain Pastel Pants for nothing, you know. Old Captain Crappy Pants, some might posit as a more suitable pseudonym...
Reality did not differ. Our planet really can be an alien world. We just have to be there to see it.
OK. Personal abuse to one side for a mo, here is where individual expression arises or originates:
Memory, experience and world-view
Intuition, inspiration and perception
Insight, prescience and judgement
Sensitivity, awareness and instinct
All these inform your personal vision and personal visual style. They have nothing to do with gear and everything to do with you. They form your emotional themes; they write your internal story; they produce your creative signature. And they cannot be KO’d by AI (not yet, anyway…) so as time goes by and our devices produce ever-more stuff for us, they will become exponentially precious as the essence - the soul if you like - of our personal content.
But Benjamin, you perspicacious colossus of practical, cogent commentary yet simultaneously brazen peddler of self-righteous, theoretical drivel, what is your point? I hear you plead.
Well, believe it or not, I shall get to it eventually but, meantime, here’s a thing to consider.
I’ve noticed if I post my usual stuff on social media, I get the usual comments from the usual people. But if I post something different for me, I receive different feedback from a different group. It seems to me that a commonality to social media commentary is reserving remarks to fields that you yourself inhabit. If you produce night-time street toggery, or shoot film in old cameras, or create dark, inscrutable abstractions, you will comment on all that stuff when it appears from an alternative source because it’s what you do. And you like what you do. And you think that what you do has an edge. Or that you and your ingroup have something singular to offer. Liking similar concepts bolsters ingroup confirmation biases.
Here's a couple that received an alternative audience for me.
Macro alien cosmos
Shadows and Dust
Street toggery in Old Captain Pastel Pants stylee. The Burberry-Macintoshed, sugar-pink-umbrella couple, somewhere wet on earth
Despite loving what I do in the landscape, I like to see alternatives to it in books and in the toggery SM world. I’m in awe of someone who can successively produce decent street photos for example, because, other than the odd one-off spontaneous randomer (see above) it’s a sub-genre I simply cannot bring myself to spend any time on. But when I see one, and it’s good, I comment. Because I know a good street photo when I see it. Ditto abstract photo. Ditto astro photo. Ditto reportage photo. And, despite what some creators would have us believe to the contrary - and as formerly discussed - I also know a crappy snap when I see it.
And that's kind of where we came in. So, it’s time to wrap up and fess up... Because, in truth, there is a theme to my work and a story behind it. It’s a personal theme and a subjective story though. It’s not a socio-economically relevant story or, perish the thought, a politically correct theme. My hope is that my work can take you somewhere else away from all that crap.
The scenic balance of interpretation and representation that I strike is rooted in my emotional, visceral and mnemonic responses to all the psychologies of self that are detailed above. I’d like you to enjoy my stuff without me or my prejudices shoving a partisan opinion down your throat. I’d like to aspire to create something of the the photography equivalent of Banks’ fantasy masterworks.
Another alien moment on earth
Some people agree with me and think my work worthy in that regard.
Many do not.
And that’s just the way I like it.
Division of critical opinion is usually the hallmark of deeply personal work; dare I say: successful work?
Sounds a bit pompous to conclude on that note but it is the end of my story.
Before you go though, I’ll leave you with a handy ready-reckoner that has served me well for a long time. It’s a bunch of criteria I use for assessing any work - my own included - and these have remained unchanged from the time I first wrote them and copied them into these very pages many years ago:
At a glance, or on initial encounter with the image as a thumbnail, does it immediately compel the viewer to examine it further?
Is the light dramatising, enhancing or flattering the scene?
Has the photographer captured a unique, clever or decisive moment?
Is the image carefully considered and much more than just a casual snapshot taken randomly?
Is the image provocative, disturbing, beautiful, redolent, sad, ecstatic or dramatic; anything but dull, obvious or mundane?
Is the photographer aware of how to use, bend or flout the rules of composition?
Is the composition considerate of dimension, balance, shape, colour, form and texture?
Has technical and methodological competence in-camera been demonstrated?
Has technical, methodological and apposite skill in post-production been demonstrated?
Does the image engage the viewer on an emotional, intellectual, mnemonic or subliminal level?
Has the photographer demonstrated a clear personal vision and visual style?
Would a printed and framed version of it be worthy of wall space at an exhibition or in your home?
Does it? Is it? Has it?
And there’s the clincher, right there, at the end.
Until next time.