Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Unexpected isn't So Hard

St. Patrick’s Reversed, 2009

“If we all walk, why do we all walk differently?”

Merce Cunningham

There’s a famous photograph taken for a 1960s Ogilvy & Mather tourism advertising campaign for Puerto Rico that was instrumental in my photography education. It’s a simple color photograph showing a cello leaning against a chair in the home of the late Pablo Casals. Given that Casals was among the most famous and respected Puerto Ricans of the time, but that he was also by then deceased, the lesson of the photo was that you didn’t have to have the real person present to evoke a compelling portrait of the person.

That was my first exposure to the idea of looking for the unexpected in photography. Most of the other portraits I’d seen were straight head shots. Arnold Newman was doing very nice environmental shots. His portraits of Stravinsky, de Kooning, and Robert Moses, just to name a few, are masterpieces.

A recurring theme here at What I Saw is my desire to find unexpected photographic interpretations of familiar things and places. For example, the idea behind St. Patrick’s Reserved, above, was that you don’t have to show something to show it. Everyone’s seen a photo of the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It’s impressive, like most any other massive houses of worship of that same style. My goal was to capture enough of the shape of St. Patrick’s to make it recognizable, but in a way that better portrays its presence, and difference from, the crush of commercial buildings around it.

I like the Merce Cunningham line because it reminds us that even though a dozen photographers might all stand in the same place looking at the same thing, what each chooses to remember about it or capture in a photograph can be entirely different. Some impressions, if we’re lucky, might even be unexpected.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I love the Merce C quote, too. Years ago, my aunt and uncle were married in St Patrick's, behind the main church in a small chapel area.