Photography as a Performing Art

Lately, I’ve been thinking about photography as a performing art, not just a fine art. What I mean by that is that there is a quality about certain photographers, and you know who they are, who are just compelling when they work. It’s like watching a story unfold before your very eyes. They work, they travel, they shoot, and the entire universe sort of emotionally “buys into” what they are doing. They are captivating, not just in the way they produce images, but they possess a certain je ne sais quoi which memorizes people. People like to watch them work and, in turn, they have an emotional buy into what they are doing which, in turn, makes the images that come out at the end almost irrelevant. Nobody cares about the end result, in a way, we’re all more captivated by the process, the actor on the stage, so to speak. There are certain invisible factors that come into play which make the entire world seem to want to live vicariously through the eyes of the photographer in question, not just enjoy the finished product (images.) I suppose you can say the same and generalize this to all artists, not just photographers as well.

Maybe an example here would help. I recently watched an episode of Art Wolfe’s “Travel to the Edge” where he went to Japan in the wintertime to photograph snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs there. Now, I’m not a super fan of snow monkeys, at least I wasn’t until I watched this show. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve no secret desire to round them up and kill them all but, had you asked me, “is this something you want to photograph?” an hour before I saw the program I would have quickly responded with a, “Heck no!” Yet, I found myself watching the show, watching Art Wolfe as he traveled, watching the quiet barren snow covered Japanese landscape, and I was captivated. He photographed the snow cranes in Japan, he talked about the bare bones hotel he was staying at (I believe he had to sleep on a mat on the floor rather than an actual bed.) We saw the beautiful pagodas and enjoyed the quiet meditative snowfall as he worked. The entire show had me emotionally hooked. I wanted him to get the shot. By the time the end of the show came around, I wanted that snow monkey, sitting there in that hot spring, to just smile for the camera and I wanted Art Wolfe to capture him in all of his glory. Of course, Art Wolfe is a great photographer and, wildlife being his specialty, he got a fantastic shot of the snow monkey bathing in the hot springs in the end, but it was more then just the shot that captivated me. Kind of like the whole being more than the sum of the parts, it was the entire process that had me hooked. When you enjoy a program like this, in a way, you are letting this person into your home. You are letting them into your life. For a moment, no matter how brief, Art Wolfe was in my living room. I let him in. Perhaps, more importantly, I bought into the whole process. The entire snow monkey thing, I was into it. I wanted to see the monkeys. I wanted to see him with the monkeys. I wanted him to get the shot of the monkeys. I wanted to see the finished print, yes, but it’s less about that. I let him into my life for a brief moment and emotionally connected.

Now, you can say what you want about me, or Art Wolfe or monkeys for that matter. Maybe it’s shallow, but I don’t think so. I think there’s an energy that connects. I think there are photographers who share a certain energy, who are capable of building a certain excitement, who just are capable of making that connection, that emotional connection, that draws the people into their world. If you’re not a fan of Art Wolfe, there are other photographers who do this quite well too. I think Joe McNally could have an entire series of TV shows, called the “Wild Man Joe Chronicles” or, if you want to be more polite, maybe bring his concept of the “Hot Shoe Diaries” to life on my TV screen. I would so binge watch that, let me tell you. I’m even buying into this without it coming to pass, already imaging in my head what such a show would look like should it ever come to my TV screen.

I really think this connection is, in some ways, like a performance. Perhaps it’s a dance we all do, not sure about that, but there is a certain performance aspect of it. Maybe Shakespeare was right when he said, “all the worlds a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Photographers, when they are good, I think they do this dance. They hook people, they bring them in. It’s about an emotional connection. It’s a dialogue, a conversation, not just a single image. There’s something more there, something that cuts deeper on some levels then just your typical shallow, “Nice shot!” Not that there’s anything wrong with getting nice shots but, well, you get the idea.

The line of thinking has me contemplating other issue as well. In my own work, am I captivating? Probably not so much. How do I become more captivating? (Or, heck, even captivating at all?) How can I better draw people in? How can I make more of an emotional connection with my work? I never said there were easy answers, only that I’ve been thinking about this more recently, at least a bit. I don’t think I’ll ever be as entertaining as somebody like a Joe McNally but, maybe adding a bit of drama into the way I shoot, maybe doing work that’s a bit more compelling, maybe being a bit more aware of the entire performance aspect of things, might not hurt so much either. (Heck, maybe I’ll just buy myself a new scarf. That would add a touch of something, wouldn’t it?) Seriously, I’d be curious to hear from other photographers. Have you thought about this at all when shooting? Is it something that has crossed your mind or am I just blowing smoke yet again?

Until next time…

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