PHOTOS WITHOUT CERTAINTY

Isn’t faith a lot like a photograph? In it we put so much hope. Not that a photograph isn’t beautiful enough, isn’t smart, or provocative enough. But it is limited. There is an expectation of clarity as it so precisely conveys beauty or hope amongst despair or sometimes disparity and nothing else; or occasionally hope and nothing else but not often. And so through it, through the finite like a graven image affixed highly, we seek the aesthetic of the infinite. A particular welfare rooted in idealism, that light is more persistent and prevails over darkness. Thusly the photograph is guileless, trusted to provide answers, maybe even save my soul or at least tell me what to do, what to believe and how to act in response accordingly, or the very least just to believe in something beautiful. Or deny something not beautiful. The photographic process, is simple and earnest like a hard day’s work or an animal with a soul. A dry creek bed, an emaciated dog, a particular cloud formation or an infant at birth, once photographed is no longer bound by worldly confines but rather, is imbued by something more eternal. That change is possible or virtue triumphs. The everlasting amidst the fallible is the hope for immortality contained by the decisiveness of the photograph. Academically of course one can conclude that the photograph is merely the product of chemical or electronic manipulation of light. Romantically though hope holds for something more idealistic, silver halide revelations or a testimony by ones and zeros. The idealistic after all, is more empowering as motivation.

So the photograph elicits response. But it doesn’t tell how to respond. The photograph shows specifics, insinuates universals, but itself is without morality or smart as it might be, even concerned with rejoinder. Sometimes the photograph is clearly evocative and by it we have an emotive response. But often it is more nuanced, more ambiguous. A photograph of a rose is nothing more while for others, it is the embodiment of divine intervention. And this is our misstep. Not in believing that the photograph can bequeath the mundane with some sort of super-knowledge, but rather that the photograph serves us like a biblical parable. Despite its connection and close resemblance to real-life existence, it does not reveal universal truths precisely. In short, the photograph is not proof that humanity is meant to be and does not lend certainty to any sort of connection between the temporal and the divine. Walter Benjamin said that photography “can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections to which it exists.”

There is no more than what photography offers, more than what is in the frame. That seems obvious enough. Yet still we infer from the photograph who ate the soup, who it nourished, lending it more than the surface account it offers. Which is fine of course. But the photograph is no more than an idol if we are to believe that intrinsically it holds these truths by some transubstantiation of light onto a sensor or film, then into goodness, charity or kindness and if not action, then motivation to confirm biases, to see truth and reveal truth for our own hope. It is no more of the photograph to be such a sacrament than it is faithful to believe in, with eyes whose judgement can be so easily clouded, our own act of seeing. Truth isn’t exactly found in a photograph no more than seeing is truly believing when in fact, what we’ve seen is a slight of hand. A card hidden in the deck. We do expect a good photograph to pull back the curtain, which it does. Or at least it can. But often we see more than what’s there: sometimes the supernatural, sometimes a ghost in the ubiquity of leaves or the refraction of light or as it can, reveal God in a can of soup. The photograph is not a thing to be considered sacred, but it is perhaps a place to hold out hope for something more. 

By most consensus, we understand the photographic process to be a medium. But if the photograph itself, the result of the act of photographing, suggests more than the surface things of life, then is it too no more than a conduit? If it suggests a more precise understanding of right from wrong or good from bad, meaningful from meaningless? If life then is enigmatic and in need of order and we attempt to clarify things through the photograph, what happens? By imposing order on what is not orderly, onto that which did not consent to our desire for symmetry, our notion that we in fact need order for a meaningful existence, perhaps we ask too much. Yet we want understanding. We don’t like the unknown and the photograph is redolent of our own mysterious undefined space of delineation. We want boundaries not the boundless, beauty not chaos or at the very least, a narrative.

Our notion is that a considered enough approach defining things precisely enough will then make us better or more complete, an improved version of our self. But in doing so our intellect becomes central to a better existence or for that matter, existence at all. It would suggest that there is only the photographed, that is to say, what we can comprehend or what we can frame. If it makes sense, then it exists and by that logic, if we believe the photograph to be clarifying, to not be photographed is to be undefined which is then, to not exist. Our intellect is a camera, a sun in our universe. To be photographed is therefore to exist and to exist with proof, definition by confirmation bias. But our orbit is more dependent upon the relationship with those we orbit with — our relationship with the world, with one another, even with otherworldly or abstract things: our thoughts, emotions, our gods, hope, fears, and eternity — not our definition of those things. The base of a tree trunk and the far reaches of the universe are vastly vague and to the photograph, one in the same. However, living is to dialogue, to commune, to relate to these unknowns. And this is faith: to trust in the mysterious, those things just outside the camera’s reach. Thusly, photography suggests by exclusion that there is more to that very existence. This is why we maintain faith, because we cannot rely on our own inward, limited knowledge of existence. Like the photograph doesn’t know context, doesn’t know what happened outside the frame, we must have faith despite ignorance. Cautiously though, if we believe ourselves to be right, we must acknowledge we could be wrong. The photograph’s audience does not know what action took place just prior or just after the frame was made, the beginning or the end, or if the glass is half-full or half-empty and any difference between the two.

Photographs confirm that our hope might be misplaced, that in fact we might be mistaken. And how powerful they are for that. We might be wrong about photography. Or we might be wrong about having any faith in anything at all. Not that a photograph isn’t beautiful enough, isn’t smart, or provocative enough. Oh but it is. And we’ve got to believe in something, even if it’s nothing. Maybe even without evidence. Maybe something more normal but still steady, perpetual but prudent, gentle and undisclosed.

Like gravity or the blue of sky or how our lungs expand and contract without our effort, even certainty turns mysterious when confined to the frame of a photograph. But if faith is certainty then it needs no hope because it is fact. With photography, nothing can be factual. With faith, nothing can be sure. Faith like the photograph is a mystery, not an answer. And maybe mystery in its benevolence, in its mundane, slow and steady breath is divine enough.

<< BACK