This is a self-interview in which I explore the omnipresent ‘poeticness’ in my work and in photography. The topic is discussed in two parts: the objectivity of a photograph including the technique and physicality, and the image.
Q Hi! Thank you for doing this interview with me today, what would you like to discuss?
A I would like to discuss the ‘poeticness’ of photography. I started to think about that after several people told me that my photographs are poetic to them but in the beginning, I didn’t see that ‘poeticness’ when I took them at first.
Q What do you think of this ‘poeticness’ then?
A I’ve been thinking about that for a long time along with taking more photographs, trying to capture that emotion. I find it very difficult to describe what is poetic in my work, I can only relate it to words like nostalgic, absurd, melancholy, calm, and so on and photographs in black and white, possibly of simple subjective matter. I was reading Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning and the definition of poetic diction in the book is ‘When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning either arouses, or its obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination, the result may be described as poetic diction. Imagination is recognizable as aesthetic, when it produces pleasure merely by its proper activity.’ (1987, p.41)
Q That seems like a quite appropriate definition within the area of poetry, how do you think it applies to photography?
A The experience of ‘poeticness’ in a photograph is created when you become aware of the relation between the photograph and yourself, so we can consider how the ‘poeticness’ is achieved in two aspects: how the objective aspect of a photograph and the meaning of the image, as well as how we relate ourselves to them through some examples.
The camera is directly responsible for the image's generation. It should be noted that while we usually equal the camera to the eye, sometimes camera can record what is impossible for our eyes to see, such as long exposure photographs. In Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theatre series (1978), he exposed photographs for the duration of movies, resulting in overexposed movies on the screens, with only a blank screen in the middle.
He explained in his book Time Exposed (essays by Sugimoto in Japanese with photographs) (2012, p.125) that the camera can record but cannot memorise. In ways that our eyes cannot, we can use the camera to capture and fix images on photographic paper. However, after the camera ‘watched’ the entire movie, nothing about it was recorded. The long exposure made the recorded image absent, such that we feel disoriented. When compared with camera, there is no shutter in our eyes to record the image that we see, so that our eyes can only have long exposures throughout our lifetimes: they open when we are born and close when we die (2012, p.131). We observe all happening during our lives, we remember them yet after we die, there's nothing recorded.
Q Q So by applying the technique of long exposure and thinking about the comparison with our eyes, Sugimoto employed this sense of loss, absence and presence which causes us to examine time and our existence and that’s explored in poetry a lot as well.
A That’s true. The next thing I am going to talk about is how the ‘poeticness’ is shown concerning the physicality of a photograph. In Hollis Frampton’s video work (Nostalgia) (1971), he burned those photographs that he had taken in the past and talked about the story behind them in
the meantime. When I first watched it, I felt this desperation and temporality in the movement of burning. Compared with digital images, burning a photograph is to destroy it which makes the physicality stand out. That’s why printed photograph has this melancholic nature because it’s perishable, which, as mentioned by Rachel Moore that nostalgia is ‘the wounds of returning’ (2006, p.1), reminds us of our own physicality and existence.
Q I see. Because of photography’s nature of depicting the perishability and changeability, it reminds us of the finality of life but the infinity of time.
A Yes, the colour also contributed to creating the poetic atmosphere of those photographs. Since they're all black and white, including the film itself, the spectator may envision how the scene in colourful real life might look like. Combined with the photograph’s tangibility, the ‘poeticness’ is expressed through its objective existence. Above is how I apply the ‘aesthetic imagination’ to photography by thinking about the objective aspect of a photograph.
Q But speaking of poetic, it’s inevitable for us to talk about poetry. Do you write poems?
A Just occasionally, I usually write about scenarios that I would take photographs of. There’s also a particular kind of art called ‘photopoetry’ that combines a photo and a poem. In Photopoetry, 1845-2015: a critical history, the author talked about both poetry and photography can draw the viewer/reader’s thought away from the poem/photograph, causing them to imagine what is depicted in the poem and what is happening outside the photograph (2018, p.5). I think a poet is like a photographer, one plays with existing text to create new meaning by rearranging them and the other play with existing reality and recreate something new or capture the overlooked to allow the viewer rethink about it, but they are all presenting a new reality with images, one is visual and instant, the other is verbal and indirect. This brings us to the other aspect of considering about the poetic in photography: the meaning of the image, which is closely related to the photographer’s subjective desire to take the photograph and how the ‘poeticness’ is achieved. Sometimes the work itself is not poetic to the artist in the first place, but when mixed with the viewer’s reaction it becomes poetic in a way. There’s a sentence in Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1987, p.103) which is ‘…inasmuch as man is living the poetry of which he is the maker, and so long as he is so doing, it cannot be poetry to him. In order to appreciate it, he himself must exist, consciously, outside it; for otherwise the 'felt change of consciousness' cannot come about.’ This implies that for a poet to poetry or artist to artwork, the creator of the ‘poeticness’ cannot appreciate his/her work as poetic as long as he/she hasn’t stepped outside from what he/she is creating and to see it from a spectator’s perspective and that poetic feeling only exists in this moment of change. This reminds me of Susan Hiller’s work Monument (1980-1), she photographed memorial plagues for heroic deaths of ordinary people in Postman’s Park in London
because she thought even those ordinary people worth remembered by us. However, it was only when she was photographing that those people began to notice those plagues and feel sad about them, even if they may have already sat on the bench in front of them for years, perhaps this is due to people's inability to cope with being reminded of death in public (Johnstone, 2008, p. 187). This can be seen as a ‘felt change of consciousness’ for both the artist and to the people who witnessed the work when it was producing and exhibiting.
Q I see what you mean. I think this transformation of consciousness for viewer and artist are two diametrically opposed experiences. The viewer begins to consider what they used to ignore or try to ignore and the artist begins to think about what they used to notice.
A Exactly. I was told by others that my work looks ‘poetic’, so I began to look at those photographs from a ‘they are poetic’ perspective. This is the process of, like mentioned before going ‘outside’ from ‘inside’ of poetry, transforming the way looking at my photographs as if I was not the maker but the viewer.
Q It appears that the camera is not only used to photograph the memorable, indicating that artists notice something that is usually ignored by others. Do you think this is related to the concept of ‘the everyday’ in some way?
A Yes, absolutely. A line that I particularly enjoy in the introduction of the book The Everyday (2008, p.13) is ‘what happens when nothing happens?’, implying that the everydayness is sort of anti-heroic and focuses on the overlooked aspect of our daily lives. This can be an object, a place, a scenario that we see every day but not paying attention to and altering the way we look at them may also arouse this poetic feeling as most people only pay attention to what they see instead of how they see. Uta Barth’s work is about seeing itself, focusing on the prolonged visual experience and engagement in creating the poetic. Most of her works bring the viewer onto the same visual journey of her daily life. When she was making the nowhere near series (1999), she
chose to simply photograph where she lived instead of anywhere else. She said, ‘One moves from room to room without any sense of scrutiny or discovery, almost blindly, navigating it at night, reaching for things without even looking. It is so well known that it becomes a blank slate in which nothing stands out.’ (2007) We encounter similar views every day, and when we begin to appreciate something that we previously thought was so commonplace and mundane, the ‘poeticness’ emerges. By engaging with very simple components that happen in our daily lives, Barth enquires about her relation between the self and the world. That actually brings up the core of poetry and poetic photographs as well, as Andrei Tarkovsky expanded this in Sculpting in Time (1986, p.21) as he regarded poetry as ‘an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality.’
Q So do you think the meaning of an image is more important than the objective aspect of a photograph in the case of expressing the ‘poeticness’?
A In the beginning I did, but soon I realized that they are intertwined together and expanding each other. Photography is a good medium to explore the ‘poeticness’ since it is quite similar how reality appears to us, but it is still rather than moving which is how we actually perceive the world. The stillness therefore brings even more space for the viewer to imagine the moving reality and re-examine it.
Q In this case, I think the ‘poeticness’ also represents the mediative nature that we are all lack more or less in the contemporary environment where we rush to do anything and don’t have time to ponder on ourselves.
A I agree, and I understand now why I relate the word poetic to nostalgic, absurd, melancholic, calm in the beginning. I want to end this discussion by using what Tarkovsky said in his book Sculpting in Time, ‘We cannot comprehend the totality of the universe, but the poetic image is able to express that totality.’ (1986, p.106)
Barfield, O. (1928) Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press
Barth, U. (1999) nowhere near (Untitled 99.18). Available at: https://utabarth.net/work/nowhere-near/#image-8 (Accessed: 10 June 2021)
Frampton, H. (1971) (Nostalgia). 15 December 2009. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voMDL1TgTh4 (Accessed: 14 June 2021)
Hiller, S. (1980-1) Monument. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hiller-monument-t06902 (Accessed: 11 June 2021)
Johnstone, S. (2008) The everyday. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Moore, R. (2006) Hollis Frampton: (Nostalgia). London: Afterall Books.
Nott, M. (2018) Photopoetry, 1845-2015: a critical history. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Sugimoto, H. (2012) Time Exposed (essays by Sugimoto in Japanese with photographs). Translated from Japanese by Huang Yaji. Beijing: Beijing GW Culture Communications Co., Ltd.
Sugimoto, H. (1978) U. A. Play House. Available at: https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/new-page-7 (Accessed: 12 June 2021)
Tarkovsky, A. (1986) Sculpting in Time. London: Bodley Head.
U. A. Play House,
From the series of Theatre
Film still from (Nostalgia),
Black and white video
41 photographs, colour, on paper, bench, tape player, headphone and audio
nowhere near (Untitled 99.18),
Chromogenic prints in artist frame; Diptych, 35 x 90 inches, (89 x 228.6 cm) overall