Of the nice things people say about photographs (beautiful, balanced, long tones, great composition, wonderful color, outstanding technique, lovely bokeh, etc.) the one aspect that ultimately makes a photograph interesting or not is the content. And, with the exception of pure documentation (here's is an exact photographic copy of your painting...), all photographic content is the expression of an opinion from an artist about what to include in a frame of what to leave out. Once the image has been framed there is an opinion expressed again about how to express the framed content. Will it be black and white? Will it be color? Will the color be accurate or reflect some nostalgic affectation from yesteryear? How big or small with the final photograph be? How contrasty should the image be?
If one takes multiple images of a person how then will the final frame be chosen? What parameters will be used in that process? In the taking of the photograph will the photographer attempt to impose more or less control over the event of the photograph? Will he suggest or demand a certain pose? Will he infer the pose or expression by subtly mirroring what he wants to see in the final frame to his subject?
And where did all these intermingled opinions come from? When we first embark on making art we have a certain amount of life experience and, to be honest, it's the subjective life experiences (and the reactions to the experiences) of each artist that makes work unique. Uniquely interesting or uniquely banal.
For most of us being young means that we've seen fewer things which might inform our vision. As we grow older we hope(?) that life has unveiled many, many interesting things to us, and those are the touchstones we use to decide what to include in our art and how to include it. But each person comes from a different collage of experiences and studies. And the counterpoint to this wealth of experience and exposure is our self-censorship as we are certain that we've seen something like this before and we're beaten down (by repetition) until we are convinced that our variation of the thing already seen can't equal the samples we've seen from the masters of old. We see the overarching opinion instead of our alterations and additions...
I think we are profoundly affected and trained by so much of what we've seen when we were young and didn't understand anything about the constraints and clichés of art. My earliest visual memories come from a time when my own father was in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. We lived in a two story apartment and I must have been all of four or five years old. My first visual memories are of light and shadow. The cold, blue, winter light that came in through the living room windows to bath the aging, borrowed furniture in a Sven Nyqvist sort of illumination. Austere and precise light. It was a bright, cold light that rendered soft, thin shadows. Another memory of the time is of me stopping just to stare at the way light came though the spindles on the railing that ran up the stair case and projected shadows on a soft, pale and pastel, yellow wall. It was the same year I really looked at leaves on a tree as being both part of the tree and separate from the tree.
I was not an early age photographer. I only came to photography in my last years at college, and then only as a hobby or a pass time. My training was in literature and, for me, images have their own words attached, even if they are just gratuitous descriptions of what already exists in the photographs.
I'm sure that the things we see early on are the same things that become part of our process and make up the bulk of our personal work in photography. When I make a portrait looking at the completed images reminds me of the feeling of the session and the words we exchanged while the subject and I collaborated in the making of the portraits. The words intermingle with the graphic-ness and objective content of the images in front of me. My whole endeavor in creating portraits is to first feel deeply attached to the subject and the moment, and second, to try and share the whole feeling, encapsulated precariously onto two dimensions. The experience and the actual piece of art are inseparable to me if it's work that means anything to me.
This will seem odd or embarrassing for me to admit but I will write it anyway. I have always been captivated by beautiful people in my world. Not a mundane, classic beauty like the blond movie starlets but a deeper and more compelling beauty that flows from the eyes of a subject and from their projection of grace as they move or alight. It's a combination of some inner energy that is resident in some and not in others along with engaging features. It's that kind of beauty that overwhelmed me when I first met my (now) wife so many years ago. And here is the embarrassing thing to admit:
After practicing portraiture and living through the endless process of just living as a photographer I came to my conclusion that your vision is molded by your experiences. If you see beauty around you then it becomes part of your subconscious context for your future existence. For your intellectual choices. When my son was born I made a point to hire the most beautiful baby sitters possible. People already in my sphere of life because of my work or my conscious efforts to be surrounded by interesting people. When we left my son in someone's care in order to go out to a show opening, a reception or an adult dinner, I wanted him to be able to look into the eyes of someone with whom I had photographed and had witnessed the sort of grace and energy I'd experienced from them. For his first three years he spent most of his time with his mother. Of all the people I've photographed she exemplified to me those attributes I had come to value. But his other caretakers were beautiful in their own way as well. You've seen and commented on many of them here on this blog when I've displayed their portraits. In this way I consciously tried to prejudice my child toward an appreciation for a certain kind of beauty.
If he ever embraces photography, or some other expressive visual art, I hope that grounding will serve to prejudice him to see in a certain way and create opinions that share his internalization of my early efforts to surround him with interesting beauty.
In some ways it's no different than painting a nursery with soothing colors or supplying plush crib toys for tactile pleasure.
So, in the end, all compelling photography is nothing more than well seen subjects selected and enhanced through the opinions, created by the life experiences, of the artist. Since that is so it stands to reason that the more richly you experience life and the more widely you travel the richer these visual opinions become. The secret is in sharing them without the attendant cynicism of age/experience intruding upon or retarding your joy at making the art, and understanding that it resides in an ever changing continuum of opinions. Some opinions widely shared and some springing to life because of private experiences that were not as widely shared. Those are the ones that make much good work interesting.
Just a thought. It goes along with the idea that "to make more interesting work you must become a more interesting person." Understanding the mechanics of writing a love poem is less important than being in love. At least when attempting to write that love poem. Maybe that's what we are doing when we make good portraits. Even if the feeling is temporary.