Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Editor's Knife

Photography, for the most part, is not an art based on creation ex nihilo, out of the void, but it relies instead on working with something that came before– something that already exists.  Down at the very ground level the photographer's task is that of an editor. The ever present questions before the photographer are— "what do I leave out of the image?" and "what do I incorporate into the image?"

The media– the raw materials and components– from which the photographic artist composes her "work" is the physical universe itself. The environment, the surroundings, the ambience in which she is immersed is the canvas and pallette and pigments that she will use to paint her creations. But maybe more to the point, and a better analogy perhaps, is to liken the photographer to a sculptor, whose work it is to take an existing mass of stone, imagine within it the art she desires to express, and then cut away everything from outside that does not match that artistic vision.

Unfinished Slave ("Blockhead Slave")
by Michelangelo Buonarroti,
housed in the Accademia in Florence
Near the top of nearly everyone's lists of remarkable artists is the Italian sculptor (and painter and poet and architect and engineer) Michelangelo Buonarroti. His work is extraordinary not only because of the virtuosic technical skill he enjoyed, but maybe even more so because of his profound and penetrating grasp of the creative purpose and process. One of his enduring perspectives on this process is his statement that the most significant sculpting is about understanding the art– the figure– that already exists within the physical stone. He wrote:

"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."

According to Michelangelo the sculptor must strive to see the figure hidden within the stone, and in the same way the photographer must work to see the image that lies beyond a surface view of the world. And then, just as the sculptor must be an editor of rock, chiseling off, chipping away, and grinding down the original raw surfaces, the photographer must be at work selecting a specific place to shoot, a unique direction to aim the lens, a singular cropping for the final print. The decisions to be made by the photographer are manifold, and laying out the whole spectrum of them deserves an article of its own.

It mostly comes down to the need to use the "knife." The photographer must cut keenly between what exists in the physical universe that belongs in his image, and what does not. There is an infinite amount of material that must be eliminated from the potential image, with only a trace– just a whiff– of the universe left. Ruthless decisions must be made. It's either in or it's out.

1 comment:

Starrlett said...

I love this post--it's so true. Editing is what really *makes* most works of art, whether the work is a photo, painting, video, or a piece of writing. It's what polishes and hones the work.