THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHER – PHOTOGRAPHY, WENDELL BERRY, WALLACE STEGNER AND THE GREAT COMMUNITY
“Port William had little written history. Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a moving beam of light. It had a beginning that it had forgotten, and would have an end that it did not yet know. It seemed to have been there forever.” from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
While reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “Wallace Stegner and The Great Community” I found the following quote by a Stegner from his essay, “The Book and the Great Community” worth further contemplation.
“Thought is neither instant nor noisy…It thrives best in solitude, in quite, and in the company of the past, the great community of recorded human experience. That recorded experience is essential whether one hopes to re-assert some aspect of it, or attack it.”
The first line of the quote, “thought is neither instant or noisy,” I consider an expectation. Those words ask that I wake up earlier than absolutely necessary in the mornings and dedicate time to contemplation, to reading and writing, and to working on my photography. It asks that I put that first, before I punch the clock at my job because like the majority of us I assume, my job is not my first passion and so why not in a very practical fashion put my job second. This is not to suggest that those jobs are bad or a necessary evil. They are simply necessary and provide us income by which we can sustain ourselves.
Although the context of Stegner’s quote is perhaps more about writer and the written word it is applicable to other disciplines that rely upon history. The camera is a recording device just as is pen and paper or keyboard and word processor and so “the great community of recorded human experience” should resonate with the photographer and the poet because there is not just an expectation, but an obligation. The obligation is that we respond to that which we are a part of, the greater community. It ask that we respond to the history set before us and in doing so, create a future history. Our future is relational to the past and hence the recording of that history becomes communal, and hopefully a somewhat responsible, thoughtful and considerate exchange of beliefs, values, and ideas.
A portion of this recording is a very large stack of photographs, each depicting a particular place and time not just of historical significance but also of the mundane. Assassinated politicians, warfare, meetings of diplomatic dignitaries, signings of peace treaties, birthday parties, grandmothers and their grandchildren, men arm in arm beer in hand, and sons key in hand to their first car. This is how we’ve recorded that human experience or as Berry puts it, “The community here is that of ’recorded human experience’ not the Pantheon of Great Writers. It is immense and diverse, more like the Library of Congress than the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. But it does include the great writers. It is bewildering both in its amplitude and in the eminence of some of its members.” Both Garry Winogrand photographs and grandmother’s iPhone photographs are there. (One day iPhone photographs will be the tool of grandparents and it will be to some just as archaic a means of photography as drugstore film processing is today. All the same though, there will be photographs made, regardless of the medium through which they were produced.)
As members of this community we are asked to respond. Either to attack, not with the taking up arms, but with contemplation or we respond in celebration that our efforts are worthwhile and that there is good within us. And when we have given thought to our place within this history, knowing that our past is in communion with our future we are asked to write that future, contributing to who we will become or in the case of the photographer, we are to photograph and record who we are and who we are to become.