I am currently reading the book "Why People Photograph" by Robert Adams. I really enjoy Adams' writing and his view of his art and art in general. The following essay titled "Writing" struck me as quite interesting. Though it's written from a photography view of the world, I think it could just as easily apply to visual art as well.
I'd like to thank my lovely fiance for transcribing the essay for me. Her fingers move twice as fast as mine.
If you enjoy this essay I highly recommend you pick up the book.
Art is by nature self-explanatory. We call it art precisely because of its sufficiency. Its vivid detail and overall cohesion give it a clarity not ordinarily apparent in the rest of life. And so if the audience lives in the same time and culture as does the artist, and if the audience is familiar with the history of the medium, there is no need to append to art a preface or other secondary apparatus.
Successful writing about works of art is accordingly an unusual achievement. It is self-effacing, devoted to establishing the adequacy of the art without the writing. John Szarkowski described an appropriate measure for critical writing; “The better the writing is the more necessary it makes the picture.” There are only a few commentators who can do that – Robert Hughes, for instance, and Szarkowski himself.
Several important artists have been effective critics – the painter Fairfield Porter was, for example, an accomplished writer for the nation – but they have not earned reputations either as artists or critics by explaining their own art. Photographers are quick to note this because they are so often asked to spell out the significance of their pictures, something they resist trying to do. Yes, they can say a little about what brought them to begin, though this is not to discuss what resulted, and they can describe the equipment they used and the processes they followed in the darkroom, but they know that if these are the secrets then the pictures are not very important.
The frequency with which photographers are called upon to talk about their pictures is possibly related to the apparent straightforwardness of their work. Photographers look like they must record what confronts them – as is. Shouldn’t they be expected to compensate for this woodenness by telling us what escaped outside the frame and by explaining why they chose their subject? The assumption is wrong, of course, bu an audience that knows better is small, certainly smaller than for painting. Photographers envy painters because they are usually allowed to get by with gnomic utterances or even silence, something permitted them perhaps because they seem to address their audience more subjectively, leaving it more certain about what the artist intended.
Years ago when I began to enjoy photographs I was struck by the fact that I did not have to read photographers’ statements in order to love the pictures. Sometimes remarks about the profession by people like Stieglitz and Weston were inspiring, but almost nothing they said about specific pictures enriched my experience of those pictures. Photographers seemed so strikingly unable to write at length about what they had made, in face, that I came to wonder if there was any exception at all, a single case where an artist’s writing did not end up making a picture smaller, less complex, less resonant, less worthy of comparison with life.
Part of the reason that these attempts at explanation fail, I think, is that photographers, like all artists, choose their medium because it allows them the most fully truthful expression of their vision. Other ways are relatively imprecise and incomplete. Why try the other ways? As Charles Demuth said, “I have been urged…to write about my paintings…Why? Haven’t I, in a way, painted them?” Or as Robert Frost told a person who asked him what one of his poems meant, “You want me to say it worse?”
Photographers are like other artists too in being reticent because they are afraid that self-analysis will get in the way of making more art. They never fully know how they got the good pictures that they have, but they suspect that a certain innocence may have been necessary. The poet X.J. Kennedy speaks of his in his amusing verse “Ars Poetica”:
The goose that laid the golden egg
Died looking up its crotch
To find out how its sphincter worked.
Would you lay well? Don’t watch.
The main reston that artists don’t willingly describe or explain what they prodice is, however, that the minute they do so they’ve admitted failure. Words are proof that the vision they had is not, in the opinion of some at least, fully there in the picture. Characterizing in words what they thought they’d shown is an acknowledgement that the photograph is unclear – that it is not art.
Of course if you believe in the merit of your work you reject the accusation of failure that is implied by a request to explain it. In this respect all artists are elitists. They are convinced that some viewers lack patience to see what is clear.
Probably the best way to know what photographers think about their work, beyond consulting the internal evidence in that work, is to read or listen to what they say about pictures made by colleagues or precursors whom they admire. It is as close a photographers usually want to come to talking about their own intensions, though even this testimony must be interpreted carefully because it is guarded (no one undergoes the trouble of serious picture making if he or she believes that anybody else has done exactly what most needs doing). Almost all photographers admire a selection of work by others, though, and sometimes the achievements they notice are closely related to their own.
For photographers, the ideal book of photographs would contain just pictures – no text at all. There have been a few volumes like that, but publishers complain they don’t sell, so not many have been allowed, which leaves photographers to endure the botched clarity and wasted effort required of them. (writing under the best of circumstances is demanding; Red Smith, the eminent sportswriter, addressed everybody who supposes otherwise: “There’s nothing to writing,” he said, “all you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”) I remember once working through more than a hundred drafts of a four-paragraph statement for a catalog, all to find something that would just keep out of the way of the pictures.
Things are not about to improve either. University presses, for example, which publish some of the best photography, hold increasingly to a policy that requires books of pictures to incorporate “substantial” texts. This often means not only layering together pictures with the photographer’s words, but also sandwiching the concoction betweens slabs of social-scientific balloon bread.
Photographers continue to write because they need to have their pictures reproduced in quantity; it is the only way they can convey an adequately sized vision of things. To get published I have tried every kind of cheating – I have quoted others to the same end as mind, I have talked about photography in general in order to imply what I was attempting personally. Experience has shown, however, that the best way to avoid talking about the pictures is to talk about their subjects – tract houses or fields or tress or any of the myriad and interesting details of life. If you have to fill the quiet of a picture, the least destructive way seems to be to speak about what was in front of the camera rather than about what you made of it. It seems the least a trick, the closet you can get to speaking about the meaning of a picture without actually doing so.
C.S. Lewis admitted, when he was asked to set forth his beliefs, that he never felt less sure of them than when he tried to speak of them. Photographers know this frailty. To them words are a pallid, diffuse way of describing and celebrating what matters. Their gift is to see what will be affecting as a print. Mute.