"Life is greater than all art. I would go even further and declare that the man whose life comes nearest to perfection is the greatest artist; for what is art without the same foundation and framework of a noble life?" said Gandhi.
I can't agree more with Gandhi. However, when you look at many modern arts, you sense insane minds and unhealthy anxiety rather than a noble life. Theologian Paul Tillich suggested that since modern arts strongly reveal overwhelming anxiety of modern people, modern arts could be analyzed in the perspectives of deep psychology, existential philosophy and theology. However, I think that it would be problematic if the values of art rely on psychological, philosophical or theological analyses. This approach provides an opportunity for artists and art critics to glorify strange-looking arts by citing jargon. A few years ago I visited a museum in Dallas, Texas, in which paintings of Marco Arce were displayed. One caption stated that the painting reveals "clinical, almost anthropological distance." What is "clinical and almost anthropological distance?" Could I still appreciate arts without going through this kind of "deep thoughts?"
Use Common Sense
Thomas Paine wrote the book entitled Common Sense to illustrate the plain truth of democracy. I believe that there exists an innate framework of common sense in human perception and reasoning. I doubt whether it is proper for arts to go against our common sense and our eyes, no matter what complicated theory and technical terms stand behind them. I treat photography as an art of common sense. It means that you can simply use your eyes to appreciate arts, just like that I use my eyes to make it. No political, psychological, philosophical, or theological backgrounds are required.
Thinking and feeling
As both a writer and photographer, I feel the tension between writing--the art of mind, and photography--the art of eyes. The preceding statement, of course, may be an over-generalization. I don't mean that a photographer is mindless. What I am trying to point out is: Message is the soul of writing, while medium is the main thread of photography.
To be specific, before I write an article, I should determine the theme and then try to discover certain insights regarding that topic. I pay less attention to wording and rhetoric because I realize that beautiful language cannot save an essay if the content is poor. On the other hand, when I plan to take a picture, my approach is exactly opposite to that of writing. After I have found a subject, I devote efforts to make the subject look interesting by experimenting with various lenses, filters, and angles. After the picture has been taken, I give the photo a title based upon how it looks. In short, vision precedes meaning and medium precedes message.
Figure 1 is a photo that I took in Grand Teton National Park a year ago. No doubt the cross seems to carry a strong religious connotation. However, did I intent to make a religious implication from this picture? No, it just happened that there was a cross in a chapel inside the National Park. By chance, from a particular viewpoint the cross was situated between two mountains. I captured this view just because it is visually appealing.
Figure 2 is another picture that is mistaken as being religious and theological in essence, for the title of this picture is "Heavenly Symbol." Someone asked me whether the picture was taken in a church and the three lights symbolize the Holy Father, Holy Son, and Holy Ghost. Behind the "cross" there is an open dome. Again, some viewers asked me if it is a symbol of the heaven. I am almost embarrassed to tell you that it is a view of the ceiling of a university's student service center. One day I looked up the ceiling and was fascinated by this spectacular view. At that moment my mind was occupied by the aesthetics of the composition and the lighting. I did not think about Trinity or any other religious themes at all. In other words, the title with a religious meaning is an after-thought.
While in La Jolla, CA for a conference last year, I had the opportunity to take several pictures of birds near the shore. As you see in Figure 3, a white bird stood on the top of a rock while many black ones were below the white bird. I named the picture "Black and White." In response to my naming, some viewers asked me whether I tried to make a statement of social protest against racial inequalities. To be honest with you, there are no social, political or philosophical meanings in this photo. I cannot speak “bird language?and therefore I am not capable of asking those birds to pose for this photo.
As Don Sheff, director of New York Institute of Photography said, it is impossible for a photographer to shoot pictures with philosophical concepts such as "a universal theme"; what he needs to know in advance is simply the subject matter. Prominent photographer Pete Turner also conceded that many of his works are nothing more than "an eye-catcher" and "a display of color," and "there is no deep meaning behind it". Psychologist Carl Jung went even further to claim that thinking and feeling are mutually exclusive. As a photographer, at the very moment of creating art, I have intensive feelings resulting from the visual impact. But when I start to analyze the subject, the intensity of the feelings is affected.
Medium and Message
Mass communication scholar Marshall MacLuhan asserted that the medium is the message, in the sense that the form always determines the content. For example, British writer Roy Bomax said that short stories should appeal to readers' emotions instead of intellect. Appealing to intellect is more properly used in a Master's thesis or a Doctoral dissertation. By the same principle, the medium of photography is visual, and therefore logically the message should appeal to a form of instant visual effect, referred to as "hot thinking" by MacLuhan. On the other hand, the medium of writing uses linguistic symbols that require decoding by a slow analytical process, refereed to as "cold thinking".
Intuition and Spilt-second Decision
The above notion may not be new to you if you trace back the concept of "pure painting" in art history. The so-called “pure painting?is an art form stressing the visual elements rather than the motif. Nevertheless, there is a difference between my approach of photography and "pure painting". In terms of creation/production, painting is a relatively slow process compared to photography. The painter has more time to modify the image with careful analysis. In contrast, picture-taking is always an instant action. An interesting subject will be gone in an hour, or even in a spilt-second! As a Greek philosopher said, you can never step into the same river twice--the world is ever changing! Taking pictures requires intuition and even spilt-second decision, instead of analytical thinking. When I see it right, do it! That's why I insist that my photography is an art of eyes, or an art of common sense, which means intuition plays a major role in it.
Figures 4 and 5 are two representative examples. I took Figure 4 during a sunset in Minnesota. The reflection of the sunset on an icy lake is very “other-worldly.?But this scene lasted for less than one minute. I barely had enough time to assemble my tele-convertor and telephoto lenses. Figure 5 also resulted from a fast reaction. At the seashore of La Jolla, suddenly I saw two canoes passing through Sunny Jim Cave. Without a second thought I held up my camera and shoot as many pictures as possible before both canoes disappeared. There is no chance of rehearsal. Needless to say, this kind of art is very dissimilar to music, dance, and drama, in which rehearsals with the same scenarios are allowed.
The intent of this essay is by no mean to downplay philosophy, psychology, and theology. Nor does it deny the merits of other art forms that require deep analysis. Obviously, each art form has unique attributes. In my opinion, photography is a visual art of common sense, an art of mind, and an art of the medium as the message.