I’ve participated in comment-driven photo community sites for about three years now, a year or so on fotolog when some friends put me onto it, and then a bit over two on Flickr. This was before I’d Gotten More Serious About Photography and both my picture-taking and my commenting were more social in nature. I was doing more straight photoblogging, that is blogging what was happening in my life with more documentary-style photos—this is where I am and this is what I’m doing—than trying to make "good" pictures or talking about the artistic side of things. (Of course everybody’s got their own definitions, but I don’t think there was any "art" in what I was making at the time to discuss. Maybe a designer’s composition aesthetic, at times, but arting wasn’t so much on my radar.)
The comments I left on other people’s photos weren’t really about the photos themselves, they were about the life situations they referenced if they weren’t completely unrelated social chatter. Then my father died and I got his two Hasselblads, and I reckoned I should at least try to become worth of them, so I started paying attention both to what I and others were shooting. I started looking at posts more as photographs than as "this is my day", and my commenting shifted into the same gear. I began examining how different quantifiable and concrete attributes of photos affected my perception, how they contributed to creating feelings and impressions. I think I was starting to work my way through the mechanics of connecting intellectually examinable image qualities to gut experience, and it was probably obvious in what I said to others about their work.
This seems like a good point to pause for a digression about how I learn things with strong technical and creative components. It’s not a plan so much as a pattern I’ve noticed in myself: I start out by assimilating as much technical information as possible and experimenting with it. As I get a better feel for things, my focus shifts from "so this is what I can make with that" to "this is what I want to make, what can I use to achieve that goal?", and I start caring more about the creative potential than learning the technical stuff for its own sake. I think I’m more judgmental in my thinking about "right" ways to get there, which is probably a reflection of my residual uncertainty about how the whole thing works while I’m still in a more intense learning phase.
Eventually I reach a point of not caring about the technical stuff at all other than as a means to an end, and I get a lot less rigid in my thinking about how to achieve a given goal. Chatting shit about the technical side stops being fun or interesting, leaving me focussed on the creative side, which is of course a lot more elusive and difficult to talk about. It’s happened this way with audio engineering, graphic design, cooking, and computer programming (in which there’s a lot more room for creativity—although it’s creativity of a different kind—than might be immediately apparent).
I’m not trying to imply that I’ve mastered the technical (or any) side of photography. There’s always more to learn, and I probably have more to learn than most. But my brain has stopped finding it interesting on its own, and I’m consequently in a place where it’s harder than ever for me to talk about art, because the stuff that’s easy to talk about like focus, density, highlight and shadow detail, etc., feel empty right now. It’s not that I think that I’m past them or anything, they’re just so far removed from my experience of a photos I like right now that talking about them seems irrelevant. (See previous post, Don’t Break the Spell.)
When something moves me, I usually want to tell the person who made it. But what do I say now? Lately I find I’m running out of words. If I feel like I want to say something about a piece, I’m inclined to only talk about how it makes me feel rather than what the photographer did to encourage me to feel that way. And that’s hard. It takes a lot of time, sometimes days or even weeks, to work out how I feel about a compelling piece, let alone how to verbalise the feeling. I’m leaving more and more useless comments like "I don’t have the words to tell you how or why, but this set my arse on fire" or a simple "holy shit!". Up there with "great capture!"—brilliant. I may be completely rocked by something, but I feel like I’ve got nothing to say about it other than, "that was great, thank you for sharing it with me".
How then do you participate in an online community when you’ve got very little to say? One of the things I’ve always liked best about this sort of thing is the opportunity to talk to the people making the things I like. It’s what I liked about [pre-mall] punk rock: you could hang out with a band before and after the show pretty much just person-to-person, rather than having the weird dynamic of star and fan, if you were even "lucky" enough to get close enough to say hi in the first place (I’m not a big fan of star-fucking or putting people on pedestals). I’m finding that I want to get to know the people who make that work as whole people, not just to talk about how they way they framed something creates an engaging tension. It’s the art that serves as a doorway rather than a complete avatar or proxy for the person who made it. And I think any increase in that sort of holistic knowledge of a piece’s creator informs the way you experience the piece itself, which takes the whole thing full circle. (Did I just talk myself into thinking that genuine artist bios are actually a good idea??)
This art thing is starting to remind of this Douglas Adams quote, which begins: "There is an art, it [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy] says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
Sorry I’ve failed to provide any sort of conclusion, but I think if I actually have a point here, that may be it: I really don’t know how to talk about any of this. And maybe, in the vein of "talking about music is like dancing about architecture", that’s to be expected.
I’ve found that comments, even empty ones, give me a chance to see what’s working for viewers and what’s not.
On sites like Flickr I try to only upload photos that I like, and generally when I put a set up the reaction of my audience varies from my own feelings of what I’ve uploaded. Comments help me to gauge that.
If I can’t say anything about a photo, but like it, I make it a favorite. To me it’s a way of saying something moved me, even if I don’t have a way to put it in words.
Almost like coming around full circle.
I find that the more I DO, the less I’m inclined to CHAT. And when the doing isn’t possible for whatever internal or external reason, then the more I want to talk/chat/write.
Chris, yeah, I hear you. Though response to things on Flickr often seems pretty random.
Bruce, fair point. Doing definitely has its own momentum!
I wanted to add that I completey understand what you’re saying. At some point one’s response to a photo gets reduced to its essence – good being a sort of internal, knowing nod with a “yeah” feeling. Or the oppposite – a cringe. Or just flatline. There’s no right or wrong to this – it just is. Then maybe you want to let the person know – because that’s often the decent and friendly thing to do, and the attempt to explain that feeling kind of mutes it – like trying to remember a dream. Best left undone. Sometimes. Or maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.
Of course, there’s the whole “Gotta give comments to get comments” thing. If you like getting comments than its best (and only fair) to give as well, but that’s a whole ‘nother calculation and computation thing goin’ on. Motivations are complex creatures.
Anyway. Zen Mind = Beginner Mind
On an almost but not quite totally unrelated note, I’ve grabbed an RSS feed of the things you ‘fave’ on flickr.
for what is worth, a ‘what the fuck dude’ from you makes me supremely happy.
i get you. if i can’t think of something witty/stupid to say, it’s usually just ‘sweet!’ or an equally lame phrase. sometimes i comment on the camera used or some technical aspect, but i’ve gotten very lazy with my ‘creative commentary’. i used to always say thanks or respond to comments made on my photos, but that rarely happens anymore. i think one of the ‘issues’ with flickr is overload. you see so much and become numb to photography…only the truely special grabs your eye, and the longer the time you’ve been on, it just becomes almost unmanageable. i have like 600 contacts now. it’s almost too much work to even browse. but i still can’t stop!
i guess i get all my chatter out of me on my blog.
I’m with cate…. anything from you, Nicolai, is word enough. I think inspiring others is as important as encouraging them. If you don’t have the ability to see “it” in the works of others and just concern yourself with the technical, then you’re missing the purpose of art. I was reading a biography last night about Andrew Wyeth. a quote struck me and I’ll probably be remembering it for a long, long time. He said “I start with an emotion, then begin working on my painting, the colors, composition. But I begin with an idea.” That’s the essence of art. Emotion and communication.
Whoa, I never thought much about other people being able to view my “faves”. That sorta changes things!