The unique mechanism by which photography distinguishes itself from every other visual art is something I call reflex-reflection.
Photography, although shunned by the establishment in its infancy, became the quintessential, defining art of the twentieth century.
This was not simply because photography’s roots were in the five decades immediately preceding the year 1900, nor that it blossomed, came to maturity and ultimately transformed with the ageing of the century itself.
Photography did what any great art must do: it unified the Apollonian and Dionysian understandings of the universe in one statement. These conceptions, and ways of conceiving, are symbiotic while opposed, like the shapes in the yin-yang symbol.
The Apollonian is abstract, transcendent, mathematical, logical. The Dionysian is real, immanent, cannot be understood by maths or physics and utterly passionate. Every facet of the one has a mirror opposite in the other, and the struggle for artists is to reconcile these into something that is not only complete, but greater than the mere sum of its parts.
In order to achieve this synthesis, photography did something unique: it separated the moment of creative action — the Reflex — from the consideration of that action — the Reflection. This is reflex-reflection.
The Dionysian; of the Dark Goddess.
Ansel Adams said that photography was a mixture of art, science and witchcraft, and how right he was.
I was brought up into photography when it was an arcane world full of mystery and hidden lore. My mother’s milk, in the form of ID-11 and hypo, I imbibed in the velvety gloom of the darkroom, moist and humid. Here the deep orange safe-light and the ticking pulse of the clock served as ever-present reminder that this was indeed a womb, a place where creation happened.
This of course, is utterly Dionysian, and the face behind it is none other than that of the Goddess herself. The Goddess is not, as some represent her, the beatific and ever-forgiving Mother, or at least she is not just that. She is the primal force of creation, the screaming torment of parturition, Camille Paglia’s foetid swamp where sperm and ovum unite in the bubbling blind darkness. She is birth, the first blinding shock of light and cold and reality, and she is death, the withering of everything and the return to the eternal darkness whence we came.
The Goddess of creation: Light and darkness united.
In the Goddess, birth and death are united, like the two faces of Janus, the door-ward. That is why the Indian Goddess Kali carries on her belt the rotting skulls of the dead. Her most feared apparition for the Celts was the Morrigan, but not as young nubile or a plentiful matron, which she also was. No, this was the haggard crone, her womb dried and sterilised by age, her fecundity withered, whose appearance signalled the end of life. When Cu Chullainn, the greatest of the Fenians, saw her washing clothes in the river, he knew he would die that day, and so he did.
In photography, light and darkness are united.
This is the true home of creation, one of the worlds that the artist must inhabit. And photography, full of dark rooms and black boxes which take in the light and the life, even, according to many superstitions, steal and imprison the souls of those whose likeness is captured, is of that world.
It is witchcraft indeed, yet not just that.
The Apollonian; of the Sun-God.
The other side of the coin is the Apollonian. Photography, in this classic sense, was not only about the dance of hands in light over the enlarging easel, but the rational and considered exploration of the hard and abstract rules of optics, sensitometry and chemistry.
A photographer must understand, and be able to use creatively, focus, depth of field, exposure, the consequences of time and temperature on chemical reactions, the use of sophisticated image manipulation software…the list is long and often arcane. This is the Apollonian world, of facts, figures, rules, laws, equations, of science. More than anything else, it is the world of light.
Without light there can be no photography, and paradoxically perhaps, without darkness it cannot exist either. A camera remains a place of darkness, where the light is permitted to enter only how and when it is desired. The Dark Goddess always holds sway over the Sun God.
Reflex-Reflection: the Genius of Photography.
Photography’s genius is in reconciling these fundamentally opposed schema. Photography did something that no other art till then had done: it separated Reflex, the moment of creation, from Reflection, the consideration of the created. This is radical.
For every other visual artist, in every other discipline, Reflex and Reflection are part of an organic flow of creation. We make a mark, we consider the mark, we make another. Photography does not allow this, because of its instantaneous nature. It is, literally, a ‘slice of time’ and once taken, the photographic image is fixed.
In a way we are like musicians (and Ansel Adams, for example, was a very talented one too). The instant of our creation, the moment the shutter trips, is our performance, and our later review of our images like listening to the recording. This is reflex-reflection.
The Reflex moment.
The instant of taking the picture should always be reflexive. This is so even if it has taken half an hour or more to set a picture up. This is often the case when using big view camera to construct a still-life. Indeed, some such works may take days or weeks to perfect. But the moment at which the shutter is tripped should always be reflexive: That’s right! The Dark Goddess of creation should steer our hand.
Technique should be invisible. Your audience should never say ‘How was that done?’ They should just be overwhelmed by the image.
The other side of the equation, which should balance, is reflection. This is what we do after we take our image. Some of this we do on that image. We modify it to make it more pleasing. But more important is that we consider it and ask ourselves ‘How could I have done that better?’
Every time you take a picture, that is what you should l do. And in a digital age, this becomes second nature. Gone are the Polaroids or the rush prints to see what we have; now you just check the screen of your camera or phone. Did that work? Maybe I should try something else.
By reflecting on the images we make, we train ourselves to make better ones. In a very short time, a mundane photographer becomes a good one and a talented one a star.
This makes photography different.
Photography is fundamentally different from the experience of drawing a line or shaping clay.
Instead, a photographer casts the net, captures what the world and the eye offers; the act is done in the heat of a moment. And later, we reflect, we consider, we examine, and if we are any good at all, we think about how we would do it differently the next time. Over time, we get better.
This innate quality, the separation of the instant of creation from the hours of contemplation, was what gave photography the power to become as definitive an art as it has.
Chasing The Instant.
Our world is predicated upon the instant. More than in any other era, we live on the bleeding edge of the new, of change. Egyptian culture remained effectively static for three thousand years; yet consider the changes we have gone through in the mere half-millennium or so since the Renaissance, when our culture was born. And that pace of change is not merely relentless, but increasing!
Every instant of time has become precious in a way that it simply is not within a static culture. Tomorrow, the world will not be the same as it was today, yesterday is already a fish-wrapper. Twenty-five years ago seems another place altogether, so different, in so many ways, that we must scratch our heads and ask ‘Did I really live through that?’
In such a world, photography is king.
Its slices of time become the perfectly preserved shades of a reality changing so quickly that even words cannot still it. At the same time its union of the Apollonian and Dionysian has allowed it to rise from mere record-making to a great art. Reflex-reflection: art and science rejoined.
As we race deeper into third millennium of the Common Era, we cannot know what art or artifice will, in fifty or a hundred or a thousand years, come to be seen as defining of this new age. But photography’s place in the cultural and artistic history of the twentieth century is absolutely clear.
Photography defined it.
Also published on Medium.