Saturday, 27 June 2009
From an off line conversation came some thoughts on the nature and use of repetition in presenting a series of photographs. The questions that came to mind were: when does consistency become too much of a good thing? and how much do repeated elements have a part to play in a narrative?
These are tricky issues to grapple but I think getting them right can make or break the presentation of the whole. I see it come up most often in the context of a book, where many more images get presented together but it can be wider than that. It came to mind when looking through several photobooks recently, professional published works (rather than SoFoBoMo). Sometimes it works, others decidedly not so.
I see two aspects to repetition - the use of repeated elements to drive a story or as the very object of the presentation.
Of the latter, Sugimoto is the master - if you've not seen several of his seascapes together, or maybe his architecture it's worth looking them up. Somehow, individually the images don't seem too much but as long series they add up to much more than the sum of the parts. Response gets driven by focus on the differences and subtleties.
Of the former, Frank's "The Americans" is a classic example. themes so subtle they are almost hidden and yet driving of the story of ordinary America and the country-wide themes of life.
For me a striking example of repeated elements was Andrew Nadolski's "The end of the land", a series on a single coastal bay in Cornwall. The photographs are excellent, the presentation simple in a way that doesn't detract from the photographs and yet I felt there was too much. Several elements keep cropping up but for me not in any apparently coherent manner. It is as if the photographer had a long line of photographs to include and couldn't give them up.
Of course, you may not agree with my views.
But that is not the point.
What I am flustering to is the idea that individual pictures must give way to the whole. Coherence, structured style, a strong story-telling structure are the aims. Don't think of a series as a showcase for individual works (leave that to the curators of your retrospective).
The way I like to think of it is as an additive process, something the opposite of Rodin's sculpture - to paraphrase: add the bits that fit until the whole appears. Anything further will not bring more. It is the way I generally like to write (apart from the blathering I do here) - add little by little until it is just enough to say what is needed (a method born of laziness and a dislike of writing). So I try the same with photography - picking the images that add to the whole until there is nothing more to add.