06 April 2011

Reading the world

A photograph is not created by a photographer. What they do is just open a little window and capture it. The world then writes itself on the film. The act of the photographer is closer to reading than it is to writing. They are the readers of the world.

- Ferdinando Scianna

About a month ago I came across the work of Italian photographer Ferdinando Scianna. He’s a member of Magnum Photos, that venerable stable of photographers and photojournalists whose numbers include a few of my own aesthetic, if not technical, mentors.

Like a lot of his colleagues, Scianna covered various genres: portraiture, fashion, documentary, still life. Many of his photos were complemented by his writing. Scianna’s images can be witty like Elliott Erwitt’s, dignified like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s, poignant like Robert Doisneau’s, or brooding like Robert Frank’s. He’s not distinctive, but assuming he was influenced to some extent by the more idiosyncratic styles of the masters, I can sympathise.

Scianna’s comment about photography being “closer to reading than it is to writing” however is uniquely his, and it sings to me. Until I read those words, I – like most people presumably – saw photography as a process of authorship. It seemed obvious that photographers took pictures the way painters applied paint or how bakers baked bread. It was an act of creation. Or at least that was how it appeared.

Not to Scianna though. His is a more humble view of the art. To him, the photographer is merely an enabler; he facilitates the artificial expression of the beauty and wonder (and the ugliness and horror) that already exists out there, in the world. He does not make anything new.

There is a tender charm to this self-abnegation. Scianna’s gentle photographer does not seek artistic glory. He does not presume to be the author of reality. He is only a keen, and grateful, reader.

As someone who avoids excessive manipulation and artifice in my image-making, I feel closer to Scianna’s photographer-as-reader than to, say, the sort of creative types populating ad agencies and marketing departments. I could be happy just being a reader. In fact, my own peregrinations have yielded a few photographs that require literal reading.


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