I no longer consider myself “a photographer,” in spite of the many thousands of hours I’ve spent working in the craft, and in spite of the intensity with which I’ve felt connected to the process and its subjects. I guess it’s just too much for me.
I recently read a piece in The New York Review by Peter Galassi about a touring retrospective of photographer Garry Winogrand, in which Galassi said:
“Photography inescapably but surreptitiously transforms what it describes. If you want your picture to look the way the scene in front of you feels, you are likely to be disappointed, and no matter how the picture turns out everyone else is likely to assume that the camera simply copied what was there. But along with probable failure there is the rare chance of backdoor success: a fortuitous scene that never existed but carries the authority of reality copied by the camera.”
It’s that way, too, in writing. Maybe it’s that way in any creative enterprise. We are impelled to put something down that—we hope—feels the way we feel. Often, we can’t even articulate clearly what it is that we feel or why we have the need to express it. We are simply moved to do it. In a photograph, we try to capture a scene or an expression or a form that says something we want to say. If we could say it in words, we probably wouldn’t need to say it with the photograph. Sometimes it works, and we get a measure of satisfaction.
You see, I can’t even say that last paragraph and have it feel to me the way the idea feels. What Galassi is saying is that this is normal: there is but a rare chance of backdoor success. We’ve all responded in some way to the Mona Lisa, but is that what da Vinci felt? Once it’s expressed, it’s no longer ours, but the property of the viewer or the reader. Who cares what da Vinci felt? Perhaps out of curiosity, yes, but what we feel upon gazing at it may or may not be what he felt. It doesn’t change the value of it for us.
As I write my stories, I am telling them to myself. What others may get from them is almost beside the point as I write. I always hope that others will get something from them. If I have a practiced hand and eye, it’s more likely that others will be affected, but that’s simply because I’m using words and semantics that are common in my culture. If I don’t push past the boundaries of the usual, people will dismiss my work as “boring,” or “clichéd.” If I stray too far beyond them people will dismiss it as “unintelligible.”
But that’s not really art. Maybe art is really surprise. Maybe it’s like Galassi says: it’s that rare chance of backdoor success, the thing that affects others the way it affects the creator, even when he or she can’t say why it works.