Decoration or Poetry

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Calling photographs “poetic” has its dangers. Some words have been hijacked and are difficult to set free again. “Beauty”, for example, seems to exist mostly in advertisement and or in combination with the female form. As in beauty pageant.

The same has, unfortunately, happened to “poetic” and “lyrical”, too.

If one searches the internet for terms like “poetic photography” one often first gets to the sites of wedding photographers. “Poetic” there translates sometimes into a look like a wedding cake with too much cream. One can even see that there is too much sugar as well.

The term “visual poetry” again is occupied by a form of literature, where the words in a poem are arranged in a graphical form. In Japan there is also a movement called “Haiku Photo”, which however mixes photos with poems. So can there be anything like poetry in a picture that is not just sugar-coated or related to words? I used to use the term poetic in some of my artist statements early on. Meanwhile, for all the reasons above, I have grown cautious. And somehow this bothers me.

But how could we tell, whether a photograph has poetic content or style? One element, I think, is rhythm. While not all poems need rhythm, some connection to musical elements is a strong contributor to a poetic (vs epic) feel of a picture. Rhythm in photographs often comes from repetition and variation of forms, but also by a blending of vertical and horizontal lines.

Content, however, also plays a major role. In the photograph at the top the middle part (the rightmost part of the plant) could be used as a nice pattern for a wall paper. The prettiness of the form as such is merely decorative. I would argue that the element, which “makes” the photo is the decaying part of the plant on the top. Not only does it serve to enhance the graphic quality of the form and provides a counterpoint to the more fluid arrangement below. It also adds the notion of “fragility” (and I would argue: wabi-sabi) to the picture. As a pictorial element it is placed at one of the “points of interest” in accordance with the rule of thirds and therefore at a quite prominent place.

For me the photograph therefore has poetic content. It is a “spur of the moment” statement on nature and my view on life. But it also has enough pictorial quality to still count as a visual statement, not only the translation of an idea. It is not only the “words behind the picture” (as I described them above) that are important, it is the direct visual effect that remains the most important aspect. That is, how I think, it should be in a photograph. Photographs shouldn’t be illustrations to ideas. The photograph should be the idea, something that cannot be sufficiently exhausted by verbal description.

So, yeah, between you and me and completely in confidence: I still try to be a photographer of poems. But don’t tell anyone, I won’t either…

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