Narrative and Photography

Photography's relationship with narrative has been heavily questioned for several decades and continues to provoke donnybrooks and end friendships. It's a relationship that has been particularly interesting for me to consider recently as I work on two photobooks.

The experience of doing so has led me to an unexpected conclusion: there are ways to consider the question of narrative in photography in which photography can be presented as the most powerful narrative vehicle in the arts. This is because a series of photographs has a strong and unique relationship with the way we form memories and, subsequently, how we string together memories to create our life narratives.

Before I start, I should say that if there are two basic ways to think about narrative in photography – either being provided all at once (Rejlander, Crewdson, Wall) or in parts (as in the photobook or serial photographic essays) - this essay references the second of these ways.

I think it's worth briefly reflecting on how differently narrative has been talked about by a handful of important contributors to the conversation on photography.

John Szarkowski challenged the ability of photography to explain large-scale public subjects in both the preface to The Photographer's Eye (1966) and in Mirrors and Windows (1978). In The Photographer's Eye he wrote, "Photography has never been successful at narrative" and he declared the fields of photojournalism and documentary non-effectual in Mirrors and Windows writing, "Photography's failure to explain large public issues has become increasingly clear...Most issues of importance cannot be photographed." He believed attempts to photograph World War II were unable to explain events without heavy captioning and that W. Eugene Smith's efforts to characterize the historic culture of the Spanish village Deleitosa in seventeen photographs pushed the medium beyond its capacity.

In a 2010 interview with current Museum of Modern Art Director of Photography Quentin Bajac, Luc Delahaye shows how the critical questioning of narrative's role in photography has continued. He said, "The refusal of narration in photography probably leads to a 'vision' of the world, not to mention richer formal possibilities."

Other photographic thinkers such as Charlotte Cotton and Alec Soth, on the other hand, have accepted the potential for narrative in photography. In The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Cotton explores the idea of narrative in tableau photography and she also discusses how - in contrast - most mid-20th century narrative photography played out sequentially. Soth, in a 2013 conversation at Paris Photo Los Angeles with Roe Ethridge remarked, "I actually want to continue to tell stories. And I'm trying to figure out how to do that with photography because it's not always natural to the medium."

I wonder if the conversation can't be shaken up by moving its focus from results to process; that is to say, away from whether it's possible to convey a particular narrative to another person through photography to whether photography can actively involve both the photographer and observer in creating narrative.

To do so, let's first mention movies and literature which would seem the most narrative-friendly artistic vehicles. Beginning, middle, end. Linear progression. Large amounts of information spread across a few hours of images and sound or reading hundreds of pages of description and dialogue. A story may double back on itself or include flashbacks, but at the end of the work of cinema or literature, almost inevitably a particular story has been conveyed to the viewer or reader by the director or author.

The observer, however, is frequently in a passive, receptive mode in terms of narrative creation – that is to say, we receive the given narrative. We may have to make leaps of thought and keep up with the twists, but generally we are doing so in order to receive a singular, specific narrative from the director or author that is driven by a rich density of data.

Think of a memory you have of a particular event, an important one. Where you were when the Challenger exploded? What do you remember of your high school graduation? Your first day of work?

What do you remember about that day or that moment?

What form do those memories take?

I’ve had a number of conversations the last few months with people about this question. There are a lot of constants that have come out of those conversations. There is almost never sound or dialogue as we replay memories in our minds of an event and frequently the visual images we have are either stills or something approaching soundless GIFs - several seconds of action that stops and might loop. Frequently an entire event is represented by a single still image. The image or images are often seen from something approximating a camera's viewpoint.

What apparently never happens is a cinematic or literary presentation of narrative – a coherent thread resembling a movie complete with sounds progressing forward through a fixed duration of time or a similarly linear literary presentation of narrative with dialogue and descriptions.

Our narrative memories of a single event, then, are a single image or a handful of still images or a GIF, almost always without sound or spoken dialogues - unless it was crucial to the story, like car tires skidding before an accident – that we piece together in our mind and, frequently, see from the perspective of a camera. Our minds seem to be built in some ways to use still images as signifiers of events or moments, to index an entire event with a snapshot.

Moving outwards, think about the memories you have of last year. What were your highlights? What was memorable? Important?

As I type this, my mind slowly begins to remember my own year…in October I went to visit my parents in Florida. Was that the only time I went to the States last year? No! I was in New York and Philadelphia in the summer. I have a vision of Yaron's son Oren dancing at a BBQ. A still view of The New York Times news center. Alberto standing in the rain, taking a break from helping me grade the backyard in Philadelphia. Laying on the inflatable bed at Amani's waiting for Ana to arrive.

Where else did I go…I went to the Darién Gap…was that last year? Yes, it was in Janu…Febru…January. Who did I go with? Simon! An image of him and Luisa walking out of the hotel in Acandí. A man falling from a cliff into a swimming hole, miraculously not hurting himself. On the Darién trip I met Juan Pablo…which reminds me of standing outside his house at night in San Félix later in the year, so high in the mountains that the clouds formed around me as I stood outside at night. I have a short loop memory of a cloud forming...and a still image of the mural painted on his house.

Slowly, the year fills out more and more as I type. Images of people and places begin to create memories of events and represent them. All of these single images or small groups of images that represent events are then threaded together into the year's narrative. Some narrative structure begins to take place, but only to a point. I can't remember the sequence within many events or the sequence of a series of events. I am forgetting some of the big moments of the year while overemphasizing details. Some things that I remember probably happened the year before.

In short, the year doesn't come together from January to December clearly. I recall still images that represent specific events and connect them, then try to run a line through them as best I can to begin to form a narrative of my year from them. Large gaps of information exist between these images, however; most of the year is inaccessible to me already. Ultimately the whole year's narrative is defined by a few dozen distinct still images that represent events strung together in some kind of order that's most likely not actually very sequential in relation to how they were lived. They are loosely connected - mostly by having been lived by me - and distanced by a lot of empty space between them.

The artistic experience that most closely resembles this sewing together of memory-images into a narrative is making or looking at photographic projects, exhibitions or books. It closely duplicates how we create and reference our memories and then turn memories into our personal narratives. While the photobook or exhibition usually present a given sequence, we have to actively make sense of that series of still images through associations, across large gaps of information, without implication of duration, without informative dialogue, music, or effects, while relying on - as compared to a movie or novel - a very small amount of information. It is we, the observer, who create duration, fill gaps, imagine sound, create logic and relationship and ultimately imagine narrative.

This relationship places the observer of the photographic exhibition, essay or photobook actively in a role that simulates how we build narrative from our own life memories. This similarity makes forming narratives from photographic works a powerful experience for the observer in the process of interpreting photographs - as well, I should add, as for the creator in the process of making the photographic project.

As a last, practical, note, a project that doesn’t give enough images or spreads them too far apart can leave us unable to connect them, creating an opaque project we can't enter by refusing us the process of narrative construction. In turn, a project that connects the dots itself for us looses the special narrative privilege of photography we've identified and more closely approximates the dictated narrative of cinema or literature. Mark Steinmetz has said it well: "Photographers who are too controlling come up with pictures where the viewer has little free will - the experience of looking at the photo is over-determined and so there's not so much lasting pleasure."

A balanced sequence, in turn, gives us the dots spaced just enough apart to allow us to participate by connecting them for ourselves, to form our own conclusion of meaning of the work as active participants, and to tap photography's powerful mimesis of how we form our own life narratives from memories. This unique overlap makes narrative one of photography's strengths, not one of its weaknesses.