The slide shows now contain photographs of cherry blossoms, crocuses poking through the snow, and other Scenes of Spring. The images are as predictable as the return of the season. And perhaps just as welcome to many people. (It snowed where I live yesterday, so I’m more than ready to see things bloom again.) You won’t see many of those images being held up as models of Engaged Photography, however. And that may be, if not a mistake, at least a missed opportunity.
This photograph is a wonderful image of spring, and we could just leave it there. Let me use it as a case in point, however. On the one hand, it is easy to disparage the image: It is merely pretty and so caters to “aesthetic consumerism”; it is a brief glance at a distant place seen without commitment, and so a form of “tourism” that sets up “a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world”; instead of bringing us closer to the world, it “anesthetizes” us to the real feelings of direct experience and contributes to “a depleted sense of reality”; instead of prompting artistic engagement or thoughtful reflection, it makes “distinctive and vivid artifacts out of cliches” and is “the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” (If you guessed that all of the quotations came from Susan Sontag, you would be right.)
On the other hand, that’s not exactly a generous attitude toward either the medium of photography or the world it depicts. Frankly, those are not the first trees or flowers that I’ve seen, so claims about a glancing encounter need to be recalibrated against the shared experience of a common world that is part of the context–and contribution–of photography. And the fact that a stock image is being recycled needs to be put in the context of the cycles of nature: photographs, like flowers, may be following deep patterns of repetition but are no less remarkable or welcome for that. And so it goes: the arguments can be dismantled, but sadly the attitude too often remains–and, we should add, is recycled as much as any other cliche.
So why don’t we take a breath and look at the photograph again? You are looking at Bluebells carpeting a forest near Halle, south of Brussels, Belgium. Doesn’t it elicit a sense of wonder: say, that natural beauty could be at once so delicate and so profuse? (Philosophy begins in wonder, according to Plato.) I think it offers something more as well: a sense of immanence, that is, of how the world is suffused with an abundant indwelling of energy, divinity, call-it-what-you-will: something that is beautiful and sustaining, a presence beyond understanding, beyond representation, that nonetheless suffuses all of reality.
Photography always can be faulted for mediating experience that could otherwise be apprehended directly. (Philosophical arguments remain, but let the point stand in terms of relative levels of everyday experience.) But it also can make us aware of what eludes attention precisely because it is so much a part of our experience of the world. A sense of presence, for example. Something that is offered to us every spring, and every time we look at a photograph.
Photograph by Yves Logghe/Associated Press.