This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2019 show Dignified featuring the photographic works of Patterson Lawson.
Dorothea Lange once wrote that “While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.” As a culture we look at a great deal, but we see very little. The large quantity of images we see each day greatly hinders our ability to see anything with a deep level of quality. Images—photography in particular—require much more of us than we give. These images, photographs crafted by artists and light, require not only our time, but also our attention and our questions. They ask us to not just stop and look, but to enter into them and see.
We are a visual culture, and the constancy by which we see, process and judge the world around us goes largely unnoticed through the simple act of repetition. Over and over again we are greeted, each day, by the colors, the contours and the tonal values of the world around us. For many of us, this repetition has dulled our senses and allowed us to write off photography as nothing more than a stationary version of the world we already see with our own eyes. The captured image is a one-to-one representation of the world around us—the lie goes—so it deserves little of our time.
Judging from her own words, this was most definitely the case during Lange’s career, and it is, perhaps, even more indicting of our culture today. The inundation of images and screens amidst the infinite scroll of social media and infinite choice of streaming content has numbed many of us to the power that a photographic image truly carries. Recent figures have pointed to approximately 3.2 billion images being shared each day on social media, with individual engagement with social channels clocking in at less than three minutes per visit. We have more visual content at our fingers than any other period in history, yet we give these images less of our time than ever before. In no other period of time has a society been able to be so quickly and easily bored with all that a photograph encompasses. In a world full of visual riches, we have become spoiled children, responding with insolence and impatience when greeted with a photograph. When a photograph looks at us, we look away, swipe up, and scroll to the next image; regardless of the mediating platform, the pattern remains: lather, rinse, repeat.
The assumption underlying our current cultural apathy is that images do nothing and require little of us. They need no real attention because seeing is easy. But image has not always been so casually ignored. The Ancient Greeks and Romans elevated human image as not only the central standard for the beauty they saw in the world but also as the form for the gods that were crafted in their likeness. The religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity speak of humankind being made in the Image of God and the strict guidelines for how image should be portrayed were a part of early religious law. Jesus Christ himself is described as the Image of the unseen God. The potential and power of image is so deeply understood within the Judeo-Christian tradition that its place in religious worship caused extreme disagreement and contributed, in part, to the separation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Image is important and it has called for attention because of this importance.
As the centers of our small worlds, we humans have a tendency to individualize and minimize many things within our culture to the point of rendering valuable ideas meaningless. We do this with photography when we assume all that it does is sit silently as we view and build its world without its consent. We believe we are the harbingers of answers, while feeling uncomfortable at the unspoken questions that images present us with. At their core, photographs are relational: they show a place outside of one’s self and a time separate from the present. They do not exist because of us; instead, they exist in relation to us. And in this way, they present their questions and provide an entry point into discussions and commentaries if we will only open ourselves to the uncomfortable space of realizing that we do not see everything and we do not know everything. Photography points to this finitude and humanity because we cannot exist as still frames of time and place, because we are always battling the mortality that flows around us.
So how then should we respond to images that call for our time, our attention and our questions? With the very things these images ask for and possibly more.
Give these photographs your time. The art of photography is not contained to the simple act of releasing a shutter; it culminates in this action. Photographers have spent hours or days hiking to get a particular shot, months establishing relationships to earn the trust to take candid shots of individuals, and years to perfect darkroom techniques to bring out all the image has to offer. Understanding the effort and craft is only one reason we should offer these images more of our time. We should also understand that images do not reveal themselves in an instant. Just like literature, images take time to process and understand. Any image not granted adequate time for viewing will only disappoint. The image is not deficient, but the manner in which it is viewed becomes detrimental to the experience.
Give these photographs your attention. Often, I am asked what a particular painting, sculpture or photograph means, as if there is a secret to decode or mystery to unravel. I respond the same way every time: what do you see? For many of us, art is not confusing, but it requires more than we are willing to or believe is necessary to give. Our attention is frenetic and we want to see more, but we rarely want to see better. Find something that is striking, allow your mind to rest there, be open to what your eye might see next, and feel free to allow the images to be powerful in the way they stop time and capture place. These portraits have strong technical ability and high contrast; they scream to be seen; take the time to listen to what they are saying.
Give these photographs space for questions. Ask questions of the images; you probably already have if you have paid them any of the attention they deserve. Observe their size, scale, cropping and content. There is a wealth of information that requires your persistent engagement. And listen for the questions they ask in response. What do these images say about us? About the world we inhabit? About the cadence and attention of our current society? How might these images point to a larger discussion or critique of the inherent value of all human life? And how might we actually begin to appreciate the broad and expansive beauty of the diversity within this place and time we call home?
Photography—when given the time, attention and space for questions it deserves—provides its audience not merely a window into experiences and vistas, but a door in which we are called to enter and experience a relationship where the boundaries of human existence are relaxed for a time as we engage deeply with a world we rarely take the time to see.