Photography and Text by Matt Garber, Copyright 2018
I SAY WE CARE
After reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, the one question that I could not drive from my mind was this: why take a photograph? Specifically, why take one of this subject at this moment? This issue is treated extensively by Sontag, and it represents the biggest shift in my attitude towards photography for having read the book.
The question of why to take a photograph seems like it should have a quite simple answer. We capture what is for some reason beautiful or relevant. However, Sontag describes the role of photographers in molding the very ideas of beauty and relevance. What makes a beautiful photograph is not necessarily capturing a subject previously understood to be aesthetic, and a photo’s relevance can be determined as much by its artistic motivation as by the context.
This translates into a considerable amount of power naturally afforded to the photographer. The individuals who master the camera, in a way, get to determine how we remember history. The photographer has nearly as much influence over what is considered worthy of photographing as any natural beauty or relevance inherent in the scene.
Several years ago, my grandmother came across something remarkable in cleaning up my late grandfather’s things: she found his photographs. Among them is the photograph below, picturing Orson Wells, Hellen Keller, and Anne Sullivan at a Roosevelt-Truman campaign event in New York.
The rally, held September 21, 1944 at Madison Square Garden, helped kick off the transition between Roosevelt’s Vice President Henry Wallace and his new Vice-Presidential nominee, Harry Truman.
Prior to reading On Photography, the photograph gave me a sense of pride because it told me that my grandfather, a freelance photojournalist at the time, was there to capture something history considers important. Now, the photograph gives me a sense of pride because it tells me that my grandfather helped decide what history considers important.
This particular rally is remembered not so much for the 20,000 people who came but rather for the handful of celebrities who were present. Among the speakers were Orson Welles and Helen Keller (photographed), as well as Sinclair Lewis, Senator Robert F. Wagner, and David Dubinsky. Frank Sinatra was just one of the entertainers. Truman and Wallace’s speeches were likely not the most memorable for many of the 20,000 in attendance.
What makes this special is that that election marked the beginning of celebrity politics in America, and that rally was the most star-studded of them all. And the trend continues to this day. Last year, we watched Lady Gaga on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton. Beyoncé dances with Michelle Obama.
Through his camera, my grandfather played at least a small role in shaping how these rallies were perceived. His decision to use his film to show Keller and Welles as opposed to Truman, Wallace, or any of the 20,000 regular folk in attendance, provided some degree of importance to their being present. In a small way, my grandfather’s decision to photograph the subject he did changed how we think about history, and how history unfolded.
The active role of the photographer in shaping what we believe was not entirely lost by me before reading Sontag, but its extent and importance was never something I considered. Now, just like I consider my grandfather’s photography a small but nevertheless important shaper of our history, I start to think about my own photography as a chance to impact what people care about.
I am excited by this. As I move forward with my photography, it will be impossible to remove it from my conscious decision making. The determinative power of my choices will be as important a consideration as framing and exposure.
Each piece of photographic art I create will be my small contribution to what we care about. After all, if my grandfather could create and decide what is an important part of our story, then so can I.
About The Author: Matt Garber is a Freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020. To access additional articles by Matt Garber, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/matt-garber-dis-comfort/