Friday, April 10, 2009

How do photos affect you?

ExhaleLast night, a friend and I went to an exhibit of Fritz Henle's photography at the Harry Ransom Center. Excellent exhibit; you should make the trip down there to see it while it's still in Austin. While going from one photo to the next, we began discussing how there's a natural flow to some photos that makes them appealing ... or quite the opposite: turning your stomach because they're composed in a way that's just so utterly jarring to the natural order of things. I didn't pay much attention to the discussion after we left the exhibit until today at lunch when having a discussion about one of my recent photo shoots (last Tuesday's in fact).

I'm not exactly sure what drove me to do this. I'd seen the idea some place else and wanted to expand on it. Wrapping ...Basically, I wanted my model completely wrapped in plastic. Tightly. We covered her head to toe in a cocoon of pallet wrap, split open a small hole to breathe from, and I went to town with the camera. One of the photos I took was a closeup of her exposed lips. This was soon after the model started getting a bit claustrophobic because the breathing hole was too small. No biggie, rip it open a bit more, and we continued on.

Today, I was talking with another friend at lunch about this photo. Her reaction to the photo was one I had not expected: she said she immediately got lost in it, got claustrophobic, and then had to force herself to look away and breathe to calm down. I can see how this photo goes against the norms of society (who wraps a person in plastic for fun? :-) and can be utterly jarring. I just didn't expect the photo to affect someone that deeply.

Unwrapped.  It's like Christmas all over!Do some photos do that to you (in the "I have to turn away right now or I'm going to pass out" sort of way)? What was it about the photo that did it? (And I'm not really concerned about the photos that are blatantly fucked up ... I'm more interested in those that, at first blush, seem ok until you really look at them and get dragged in).

It's a bizarre curiosity for me, I guess, understanding the design dynamic that goes into making a photo that's sole purpose is to tweak a person in what may be perceived as a negative way. I mean, it doesn't take much to make a photo that someone looks at and gets turned on by. But to make one that has a subtle but gnawing detail in it that sticks in your subconscious and eats at you? You know the kind of image I'm talking about ... it's the train wreck one. You just have to look at it to figure out what went wrong, when, and where.

Cacooned in PlasticI think a lot of it just comes down to wanting to know how to affect the mood and emotion of the viewers of my photographs in any way I choose. Like I said, it's easy (in my opinion) to make something that warms a heart. I think it's harder to do something that turns one frigid or throws chills up your spine because we naturally don't wish to encounter those things. They're potentially painful.

As an aside: I recently got access to a well stocked library again (and one that should have some excellent photographic resources), so I think I'm going to spend some time going through to try and understand where this idea is coming from. Just something for me to think about.

Das Boot!The model here was a trooper. We had her wrapped up for over an hour or so, pushing her this way, shoving her that way, rearranging her until she fit the light the right way. Apparently it's hard to move around when your body is mummified in plastic. Who knew?

Oh, and Fritz Henle? Yeah, you really ought to go see the exhibit. It's free at the HRC and worth the 30-45 minute walk through. Excellent work (although, I'm really not big on his fashion photography ... but I digress).

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