I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs lately. Photo books, to be more precise. I spent last night looking through Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, (2014), a retrospective of Koudelka’s career published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Along with Robert Frank, Koudelka may be the photographer I admire the most. There’s something incredibly luxurious about his work, especially Gypsies and Exile – both shot with 35mm b&w film – when viewed as printed photos and not simply images on a screen. It’s something the current generation of photographers may be missing, which is a shame. The times a photograph has really moved me, not simply as an interesting visual experience but as something existentially and profoundly alive, have all been when viewing a physical print, whether hanging on a wall or printed in a book.
There’s something remarkably satisfying about looking at b&w film photographs printed in a high-end photo book on 100 weight semi-glossy fine-art photo paper. There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that incorporates both the hand and the eye. It’s so much more rewarding and inspiring than viewing the same photos on a screen, something about the instantiation of the photo as a ‘thing’ which makes the experience of the image on a screen so remarkably impoverished in comparison. Some of the most intense visual experiences I’ve ever had have been either standing in front of a matted and framed photo hanging in an exhibition or printed on the pages of a fine-art photo book. Viewed on a screen, it’s just another image, one of thousands we consume daily. Viewed on a gallery or museum wall, or as a page in a book held in one’s hands, it’s a unique thing having specific tangible qualities. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s b&w film photos print better than b&w digital photos. There’s some essential character of a printed 35mm negative that can’t be duplicated with digital capture no matter how you attempt to post-process it to mimic film. If you don’t see that, well, I’m not sure we have much to talk about.
Which leads to the larger question: Why do we love photographs? What is it about them that makes their experience so important to us? Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright in his 1712 essay “The Pleasures of Imagination” sees it as a matter of possession (as in physical possession of a thing): “A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude, uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.”
If you agree with Addison, the pleasure we derive from looking at photos is a solitary thing, not beholden to being shared or intensified by being experienced with others. Experiencing Art is not about shared pleasure; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s because it’s an experience fundamentally incommunicable; I’ll be damned if I can explain to you why I sat up till 3:30 AM last night looking at Koudelka’s photos, or why I find myself obsessively going back to Robert Frank’s Valencia 1952, or why I could stand slack-jawed in front of a simple Walker Evans photograph in the Getty museum.
One thing that Koudelka, Frank, and Evans have in common, and that is their aversion to captioning their work. They present their photos without explanation, and we the viewers get to decide what it means. As Gerhard Richter has noted, “pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”