Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sorting through chaos (and then adding it back in)

I snapped this photo standing outside a used bookstore in Paris. I didn't dare step inside. I wouldn't hesitate to take photos of riots, but this...this chaos was intimidating. There wasn't a person in sight, but I was sure that this was the lair of some terrifying creature—perhaps Shelob, that giant spider in Lord of the Rings, or maybe just some troll-like bibliophile ready to snap in two anyone "just browsing." Only the bravest dare enter. Sure, there appears to be organization off in the distance, but before you reach that promised land you have to cross mountains of chaos, books piled upon books like so many unredeemed souls.

I guess this image makes me think about the problem of ordering knowledge. Denis Diderot is my intellectual hero because he walked the line between order and chaos so well. He co-edited the most ambitious encyclopedia Europe had ever seen—72,000 articles penned by more than 140 of the greatest minds of his day, all 18,000 pages alphabetically ordered and preceded by an impressive forward and a "tree of knowledge" tastefully pruned to 18th-century philosophical standards—and then he subverted the entire structure by weaving what we would now call "hyperlinks" into all of the authors' writings. One minute you are reading about convents and suddenly Diderot (cheeky devil) might point you to an article on prisons, and so on. Diderot believed in the interconnectedness of knowledge way before the world had a "wide web." And although he was not lacking in self-esteem, his own collection of links within articles were not even meant to be the final word, but rather an example of how we ought to read. He would love Wikipedia and its ever-mutating content. He tried to invent it.

I could go on (don't get me started on taxonomy), but let's get to how this applies to photography. Remember the quote I used from Lewis Baltz in my last post about how the real difficulty in photography is in organizing photos to create meaning? I agree. But I also like what Stephen Shore says about the moment we take the photo:
Photography is inherently an analytic discipline. Where a painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture, a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture. A photographer standing before houses and streets and people and trees and artifacts of a culture imposes an order on the scene—simplifies the jumble by choosing a vantage point, choosing a frame, choosing a moment of exposure, and by selecting a plane of focus. (The Nature of Photographs, 37)
That may come off as a bit too cerebral to someone taking snapshots of their kid's birthday party, but we're all making those choices every time we take a picture. In fact, we may be working from a list. Somewhere, in the back of our mind a list (created by looking at scrapbooks? by family tradition?) lurks...Photo of child blowing out candles? Check. Photo of each present being opened? Check.

A good reason to get a little intellectual about our systems of organizing (our conscious and subconscious lists) is to weave a little chaos back into the mix. Add a little Diderot to your structure. Try cross-pollinating your lists. This is what happened (quite a while ago now) to wedding photography when "journalistic" coverage became the big thing. The standard poses were suddenly in the company of (if not displaced by) a photo vérité style that in turn produced enough candid moments to inspire its own set of (less than spontaneous) lists. It sounds like I'm suggesting that lists inevitably lead to stagnation and cliché, but what I am really suggesting is that we need to be aware of the lists that we already use and see if they have anything to say to each other.

Thoughts? Comments? How do you organize chaos? How much chaos do you let in?


Alex said...

Thats an awesome picture! there has just gotta be a crazy story behind that mess... :)
hmm... I'm not a big fan of messy places, so I try to keep my room, and my photo's, fairly clean, as in not busy. But when I really clean anything, I make such a mess! I have to take out everything and make a big mess. :) I do it so I can't remember what it was like before, then I have to come up with something a little different.

michelle said...

I can't really answer your question. I don't enjoy chaos, but I seem to always have too much of it... that said, that photo makes my heart go pitter-pat!