[Editorial note: This is the fifth and final part of Infinite Possibilities, a series which started Tuesday, refuting the belief that “it’s all been done”/”there’s nothing new under the sun” in photography. This series was originally written in early August 2006, then expanded and published on my old website in late October of 2009, and now expanded again as I republish it mid December 2010.]
Part 4: Juxtaposition and Meaning
Imagine you’re taking a photo of someone, and you’re trying your best to make the picture nonspecific, neutral, and indistinguishable from other pictures of other people.
Each person has a unique physiognomy, making everyone distinct and identifiable. Each also always has an expression on her or his face; even a blank expression is an expression. Depending on how you look at it, a person has about 52 facial muscles, all capable of flexing with subtle variety; and most can move relatively independently from the rest. You can pucker your lips, wink an eye, stick out your tongue, raise an eyebrow – you get the idea. Taken together, you can produce many, many thousands of distinct facial expressions which can be interpreted by viewers.
Putting aside the unique physiognomy, and the one-in-many-thousands facial expression, other distinguishable factors include age, sex, weight, hair color, hairstyle, eye color, wrinkles, acne, scars, possibly make-up, possibly facial hair color and style, tan – it just goes on an on. The combinatorial possibilities are staggering. And that’s still just talking about the person’s face. People can position their bodies into a far, far larger number of positions than the number of facial expressions, and human bodies have just as many distinctive characteristics as faces. And let’s not forget about clothes. Think about all the different brands and makers, all the different types of garments, all the different colors and patterns; think about whether they’re tight fitting or loose, pressed or wrinkled, buttoned or unbuttoned, new or worn and frayed, bright or faded, stained or not, holes – again, the combinatorial possibilities are staggering enough that most combinations are unique. For example, I’m probably the only person in the world wearing the blue, 1995 pattern Disneyland Magic Music Days t-shirt with a khaki 2007 pattern Weatherproof brand shirt and khaki 2006 pattern ExOfficio Amphi-Pants, right now. We don’t even need to get into jewelry and watches.
Beyond the person’s countenance, hairstyle, pose, clothes, and so on, there’s still another whole set of factors also making the picture distinct, involving the photographer’s picture making choices. These include how much of the person you show in the picture (just the face, or the full body, or perhaps just a little toe or the left knee), how large you show the person in the frame (such as making the whole body just a small dot in the picture, or filling the whole frame with just a fingernail, or somewhere in between), various light considerations (number of lights, direction of light, color of light, diffusion, intensity), the brightness of your exposure, your angle to the subject (above or below, and front or back, and left or right, tilted toward or away, rotated, etc.), the aperture and amount of depth of field you choose, where you focus (the person’s eye, fingertips, or wherever else), where you position them in the frame, what elements to include in the foreground and background, etc.
There isn’t anything in all of photography more photographed than people. And yet, with merely the simplest shot of someone, there are necessarily so many aspects, each of which is so singular, that when they’re combined, it’s almost impossible to create a picture which is not – at least superficially – recognizably unique from all others.
Getting beyond this very superficial kind of uniqueness in every picture, let’s move on to the meatier content aspect of the infinite possibilities for taking new pictures, which relates to the discussion above. As I’ve discussed previously, pictures can have content. They can be meaningful. They can be about something. They can be articulate forms of visual communication. I’ve also previously discussed that pictures don’t just present things, they also represent things, and thus, the subject in the picture is not the subject of the picture. For example, a picture might show a dog, but the subject of the picture might be a dog’s loyal friendship with her caretaker, or a dog’s obsession with her chew toy. This representative nature of photography – not merely showing objects, but also showing whatever we choose to express through these objects – expands the spectrum of photographic possibilities astronomically. If there was any question whether we’ve already photographed everything there is to photograph, this, alone, should definitively answer that we have not.
To tie these in with the discussion of the combinatorial argument, above, I also explained a couple weeks ago how the language of art builds meaning through the juxtaposition of elements. (I won’t rehash these discussions, here; you can click and read them.) Within this context, when we consider what’s already been done within photography versus the scope of what has yet to be done, we must recognize not merely the set of each possible object that can be photographed, and not merely the set of each possible combination of objects that can be photographed, but also everything that can be expressed through the juxtaposition of all of the elements of a photograph. Truly, we have just scratched the surface of what there is yet to be done in photography.
If you were to speak only in single word utterances, then the number of things you could express would be approximately related to the number of words in your language; several hundred thousand, at best. However, by stringing words together into sentences, paragraphs, essays and books, we open up a set of possibilities to express ideas, which is so vast that – for all practical purposes – it’s limitless. Right here in this blog post, I’ve effortlessly constructed sentences and strung together paragraphs which have never been said nor written before, expressing some specific ideas which have never been expressed before.
And so it is with photography, too: When we move beyond the holophrastic mode of visual communication, to more sophisticated communication through thoughtful juxtaposition of all elements which make up a picture, the possibilities become limitlessly vast.
In the first part of this series, I made the technology argument (actually, two separate technology arguments) that it hasn’t all been done. In the second part, I made the argument for the unexplored. In the third, I made the case for the ephemeral and the ever-changing. In the fourth, I made the argument of the dangerous, difficult, uncomfortable, expensive, and troublesome. And now in the last part, I make the argument of the combinatorial, the juxtapositional, and the meaningful.
To photograph what hasn’t already been done, you don’t need technological breakthroughs. You don’t need to find fantastic discoveries. You don’t need once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. You don’t need to subject yourself to challenges and discomfort.
All you need to do is see.
Bristlecone Pine Trees (Pinus longaeva), White Mountains, California
All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.