Strange as it may sound, I owe much of my photographic style to Highlights for Children magazine. Every few months they published a feature called Mystery Photos–an assortment of macro photographs of common household items. The challenge was to guess what you were looking at. Often I’d figure it out quickly, but there were quite a few “stumpers” as well. Whether I finally figured it out or gave up and peeked at the answer, I always left that page with a fresh perspective on my everyday surroundings. Today, I delight in shooting my own photos of commonplace subjects in ways that make people see them as objects of wonder. Often the result is some form of abstract composition. Most of the time I leave just enough clues for the viewer to follow his way back to the familiar if he so chooses.
As photo artists we like to think people will appreciate an abstract as a stand-alone work of art without needing to know the source of the photo. More than any other artistic discipline, people approach photography with an expectation of realism. Most people see a painting of swirling colors or an abstract sculpture and begin discussing the merits of the work, or guess at the inspiration behind it. But if the work is a photograph, the first thing they want to know is, “What is it?” Not until that question is answered will the conversation move on to the artistic merits of the work.
This dichotomy of artistic perceptions first struck me as a bad thing. But when I considered it further, I realized this isn’t the case. Photography brings with it its own unique opportunities. It is inherently different from other artistic disciplines. When we view a photograph, we know subconsciously that the camera was pointed at something, even if it’s not obvious what that something was. This subconscious understanding quickly translates into conscious curiosity: “Nice picture, but what is it?” Answering that question gives the consumer of photography a different perspective on the world around him, just as Mystery Photos did for me. As photographers, unlocking the mystery of the subject helps develop our eye and propel us further down the path of artistic development. A well-executed abstract makes us want to get out there and try our hand at something similar. Photographers get the best of both worlds: discovery and development.
It takes thousands of photographs and strong mental discipline to train yourself to appreciate abstract photography as art first. But even then that question remains, lurking in the shadows of your gray matter. Your mind keeps whispering, “What is it?” You can’t get it out. It’s still strangely settling to be able to unlock the mystery of the subject. And therein lies your power as the photographer. The “What is it?” whisper will hold your viewer’s attention even longer than the aesthetic of the most beautiful landscape photograph. Embrace it.
Artistic discovery and appreciation is an intensely personal experience. Our opinion is shaped by the sum total of our life experiences and associations. If we like a particular piece, we may linger. If not, we move on. Only one art form—photography—has inherent power to hold us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. It’s the power of curiosity. It’s the power of wonder. It’s the power of “What is it?”
Jesse Conklin (http://www.twitter.com/jezconk) is a photographer, actor and musician, He enjoys learning what makes people “tick” creatively and helping them achieve their artistic potential. When he is not acting or taking pictures, he enjoys reading, exploring the great outdoors, and spending time with friends.