Several weeks ago now, I read something online by a reasonably well known photographer. The article talked about showing your emotion in your photographs, and it used a simple example of using blue colors to convey peaceful feelings and orange and red to convey excitement. While I don’t think it is as simple as that it is true that this notion of conveying emotion through art is not new. In his book What is Art? Leo Tolstoy argues that art is a language. But instead of conveying words, it conveys emotions, feelings. The feelings of the author of the art are captured in the art itself. When the viewer sees it, those feelings speak out to them. And the measure of how good art is, is how clearly and loudly it speaks to the viewer. It has nothing to do with the nature of those feelings, but how well they are communicated. Now, I think that Tolstoy’s view has shaped much of the modern discourse about conveying emotion through art. But how easy is it to do that, to convey emotions through art?
Music, instrumental music without lyrics (because using lyrics is obviously cheating), has an amazing capacity to convey emotion. Long drawn out notes vs. quick short ones. Far apart notes vs. close ones. Several notes together vs. solitary ones. In Western music, scales and modes all come with different emotional payload. In Indian Classical, music is classified under ragas. The word raga itself has several meanings. It can mean color, actual color to a synesthete or metaphorical color to others, or it can mean emotion, passion. But either way, western or eastern, music conveys emotion without words like no other art.
Performance art, like mime or dance
This is fairly obvious. A person acting, even without words, has a very good chance of conveying emotion through gestures, movement and expression. Dance can be very eloquent.
Visual art, such as painting
Now we are getting into the murky areas of art where it is harder to convey, for the artist, and consequently harder to read, for the viewer. Nevertheless, a painter has several means of conveying emotion: choice of color palette for instance can have a significant impact, a vibrant bright palette vs a dark, muted, and limited palette (whats’ the difference? Look at Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters and Field of poppies). Also, since painting is by nature synthesis, you can insert things at will. The painter can paint in expressions on faces, or paint events or objects that explicitly speak to the viewer and elicit certain emotions (see Liberty leading the people by Eugène Delacroix). More modern painters who mainly use shapes and colors and distortions have a harder time (see Wassily Kandinsky’s White zig-zag). The difficulty in communication is less due to the painter’s ability to convey and more due to the fact that the viewer is not privy to the new language. When the old classical painting styles went out of style and Picasso opened Pandora’s box, one of the things that came out of that box is a new language of art which was no longer understood by the ordinary viewer. Was it a good thing? I don’t know. Tolstoy would probably disapprove, since he expressly rebuked ostentatious art that does not convey emotions (clearly) as bad art. According to him, it is contrived speech and people see through it. Thus they do not feel what the artist felt. One very important point, that I will come back to shortly, is to distinguish the emotion in the picture from the emotion of the artist. Say, a picture of a sad face is the emotion in the picture. But is that also the emotion the artist felt? Unless it is a true portrait, and even then, it probably is. Since a painting is synthesized, the artist inserted every element in it to create it, I can argue that every emotion you see in it is from the artist. This is different in paintings than in what I’m about to discuss next.
I am omitting other forms like sculpture because it is similar to painting. This brings us to…
If I could have a dime every time I hear show your feelings through your photos… I hear it, see it, read it all the time. But how easy is it to convey your emotion through photos? First of all, a lot of people misinterpret that as the emotion in the photo. For instance, a lonely portrait of a scantily clad but pensive woman. It is not the “pensive” mood that is the emotion though. That is the obvious emotion in the photograph. But is that the feeling the artist/photographer had and wanted to convey? Tolstoy’s essay (book, really) asks the artist to show what he (or she, pick one) felt so that the viewer may feel it too. And I will be the first to say that I don’t think the photographer felt “pensive” when shooting photos of the lonely, part or total nude woman. Unlike a painting, where the artist has to internalize the woman’s feelings–real or imaginary woman, with real or imaginary feelings–before his hand can accurately paint it, photography makes no such demand of the photographer. Several reasons: first, if the painting is of a woman drawn completely from imagination, then the woman and her emotions exist in the artist’s mind. Those are essentially his feelings. He is just projecting them onto a subject. Second, if the woman is real, but not necessarily pensive, yet the artist paints her as so, then again it is the emotion inside the artist’s mind that is being projected onto the subject. Third, if the woman is real and she really is sad, even then the artist has to internalize that sadness before he can draw it accurately. You’ll have to feel a little bit of what she feels before your painting shows it. Why it happens I don’t know, perhaps because painting is slow and you spend a great deal of time in the presence of the person with an emotion, that it seeps through to you. Perhaps because you actually have to draw the lines that show sorrow and you can’t do it, you just can’t, without feeling it. Then, of course, there is the matter of color palette, light and darkness and composition and host of other things. None of this applies to a photograph. Unless you are in there with your subject for a long time, and like the painter you internalize the emotion of your subject, you probably don’t feel what the woman feels. And there are several reasons for it too. One, the time spent is too short. Two, you don’t really draw the lines manually, you simply press a shutter button and that mechanical act is very far removed from the manual effort of having to paint in an emotion–whatever is out there is recorded instantly. Three, you don’t have a lot of control over the color palette, although you can possibly edit it later. Four, the subject is always external and separate from you and if she is not feeling really pensive–depending on how good of an actor she is–not only will it not convey your emotions, it won’t even convey her own emotions very well! And this is all still considering a human subject with explicit expression of emotion. What if the subject was landscape?
Or a scene on the street?
Or a portrait of a passing stranger?
I feel jubilant when it rains. I like the dark clouds, the crashing, deafening thunder, the subtle sound of rain drops, or not so subtle in case of a downpour. But if I took a photo of this, it may not convey my feelings at all. On the contrary, because a lot of people associate dark clouds and rain with sorrow and misery (yeah, what’s up with that anyway?) they might completely misunderstand me.
Consider a majestic landscape, like any of the ones in the movie Dances With Wolves. Does it make you feel exalted? Or does it make you feel lonely? Does it make you feel sad or scared? What is it that the photographer felt? Consider the famous Ansel Adams photo of the Snake River against a backdrop of the Tetons. What emotion do you feel? What emotion did Adams feel? I am not sure if he wrote it down somewhere so you can compare. A lot is said about his moon rise photo somewhere in New Mexico. From what I have read, Ansel Adams was driving down the highway very fast–his son was with him–when he saw the scene and hastily pulled over by the side of the road. He quickly calculated exposure needed in his head as he couldn’t find his light meter, loaded two sheets of film and took one shot, but was too late for the second. All of this happened very very quickly. I would say a couple minutes, five at the most. Very different from the poetic, romantic idea of setting up your large format camera at leisure, surveying the scene and absorbing it first, then setting up the camera with slow and deliberate motions and finally taking the shot. No, instead Ansel Adams took the equivalent of a snapshot with a large format camera. I have to ask, and you have to wonder, what emotion did he feel between driving fast on a highway, fishtailing onto the shoulder, yelling out instructions to his assistants, hauling gear out of the car, setting it up, calculating exposure in his head with the last couple seconds of light left and releasing that shutter. Between all that tremendous haste, what emotion could he have felt? And does it come through in that photo?
If you consider street photography–which is where this whole essay started because the photographer in question is a street photographer–there is very little time between when you see a shot and when you take it. Seconds, or even less, a fraction of a second. It’s there and it’s gone. If you are good with your camera, you are ready and you will be able to take it. For most people, by the time you’re done fiddling with your camera, things have shifted, people have moved. The picture is over. But let’s assume you are ready and there is no lag between your spotting a shot and taking the photo: even then you have an instant to decide on a photo. What emotion did you feel in that instant? What emotion can you feel in that instant? Before you can show your emotion in your photo, you have to first know your emotion. One, we aren’t always aware of how we feel even when we are introspecting and are completely closed off to the world (meditating). It takes years upon years of diligent, frustrating practice before you become aware of your own mind in the moment. And that is without a camera, without the desire to take photos. A photographer isn’t a monk. How much emotional self awareness can we expect from a photographer who is willingly allowing himself to be buffeted by emotions of other people all around him? And two, even if you start out with a strong identifiable emotion, you are unlikely to find anything on the street to mirror it. Unlike the painter, the photographer is restricted by what is already out there. You can not insert anything, only select. Despite all the claims to making a photograph, the reason we say we take a photo is just that: we select, we take from what is spread in front of us. Therefore, the claim by the photographer I mentioned in the beginning (and many more, to be honest) is impractical and nearly unattainable. It is derived from Leo Tolstoy’s argument about art, and while it applies to some forms of art, it is certainly not suitable for photography. It is certainly possible to achieve a meditative state and maintain it, so that you are acutely aware of every thought you have, every feeling you have. But how to depict that in your photos? I haven’t got a clue. If you are mindful you might, just might, be able to depict your emotion in a more contemplative setting: a quiet walk in the woods or on a peaceful street in the morning, not full of people yet. But to say that you are showing your emotion in your photography, especially street photography, or to demand it of others is absolutely meaningless.