Sunday, December 29, 2013


The previous post, about my Winogrand style cafe picture, and how it is of no use to me, perhaps opens up a little area of discussion. The picture is of no use to me: it contains nothing personal, it evokes no personal memories, it does not give me any particular joy to look at, it is not part of something larger I am making. It's pretty good. It's not good enough to stand alone, really, as a piece of Art. If it were as good as it is, and not an obvious copy of Winogrand, perhaps, but it is, so no.

In what follows I will use the words use, useful, useless and so on in as broad as sense as is reasonable. I consider, for example, artistic appeal to be an example of usefulness. If I think a picture is pretty and so derive pleasure from looking at it, that is a use of that picture. Of course, if I can sell a picture (to someone who presumably has a use for it) that is useful to me. The essence is that there is some transaction here, the picture will give me something, perhaps if I look at it, perhaps if I let others look at it. I get something, be it pleasure, emotion, education, money.

Any picture I own, whether because I bought it or shot it, may or may not be of use to me.

Personal photographs, snapshots, have a personal use. I use them to evoke memories of things past, I use them as a record of people, places, events. These things are generally not of use to anyone else. Indeed, being of no use to anyone outside the family is almost the definition of a snapshot. It might be an excellent picture or a terrible one, but it is of no use to a stranger. The very idea of so-called "vernacular" photography is a re-tasking of these useless pictures, rendering them useful to strangers as parts of a larger Art Thing which comments on, or celebrates, or records, something of culture or community or something. The meaning of a snapshot is not really changed here, we see a picture of strangers and either do or do not feel some affinity. The idea does not change, but by embedding these useless fragments into a larger thing, we potentially create a larger entity which is itself useful.

More generally we have the problem of the use of a photograph. Regardless of details, perhaps we can agree that a picture that is never looked at is not in any meaningful way, useful. It may once have been useful, but now, with no viewers, it barely exists, and is certainly not useful. Thus, virtually all pictures are currently useless, having been uploaded and then compressed under the mass of newer pictures, pushed down the timeline into the past, and obliterated from view. These pictures were useful, but only for a little while, viewed by friends and family until newer pictures are uploaded into our account.

We see that usefulness has, potentially, a timespan. News photographs are also only useful while relevant. Some few are dredged up again to serve the use of summarizing the year, the decade, the era. Most news pictures vanish into the morgue and are, essentially, gone, useless.

Iconic photographs remain useful, however. We derive something from looking at them, over and over. They remain in the broader cultural memory. We think of them perhaps as timeless (although this is surely false). Prints, posters, and calendars are sold. Many transactions of many kinds constantly surround these pictures, from an appreciative and rewarding glance in a museum to the exchange of $17.99 for a calendar.

All of this stuff fits into my grand unified over-thought theory of photography, somehow.


  1. I would suggest that your utilitarian appraisal is missing the point of art, which by it's very nature is a release from the earthbound physical measure of all things long enough to experience a brief "glimpse" as de kooning called it.That also is not it's use as much as it's nature or capacity which we remind ourselves is ours also, but not merely for the purpose of returning to the sanctioned utilities of survival revitalized. We remind ourselves that we are the life the beauty, the purpose, and not simply a busy animal climbing a ladder of infinite rungs to someday.

    1. And I would suggest that you need to re-read the second paragraph of my remarks.. The word "use" here isn't quite what you think it is. If you have a better word for what I'm talking about here, I'd love to hear it. I certainly intend to include, rather than exclude, what you are talking about, in the concept I am chewing on here.

  2. OK, I read it all, over and over. Call me obtuse but I think you state the obvious over and over as if there were some point to be discovered by the thoroughness employed. You seem to be seeking a specific knowledge about a subjective practice. l don't have a better word for what you are talking about because I don't understand why you are trying to get a fix on something as fluid and relative as use and meaning are.

    1. Fair enough! I appreciate you taking the time to read, and to comment.