Intention and Photography
I took a photo class once. The professor immediately claimed a difference between “snapshots” and photos. The first is a lazy action with (apparently) little artistic intention—a random shot taken on an iPhone, maybe. The second is one which requires more thinking and intention—it requires a determination to make a photograph, to do art. There is truth to her claim: good art usually requires skill and patience, but I’d like to poke at intention a bit.
Briefly imagine that you are at the Getty (or any “good” art museum). You walk into a cavernous room, empty except for its walls sparsely dotted with paintings. One painting catches your eye; it is one from Caravaggio, who is a dead artist. So you approach it; its composition is excellent, the lighting is both natural and intriguing, and it emanates an overall pleasant mood. The intention of the artist must be good, you imagine, and so you bask in his good intentions executed excellently.
Now, hypothetically (I have no knowledge of whether this was the case or not), Caravaggio had thrown this painting in the trash, and some dweeb recovered it to decorate his empty home on a budget. Or, it was a sketch, intended for rehearsal and not as a masterpiece. Or, it was a collection of Caravaggio’s collective mistakes, never intended to be shown in the public. We don’t really know. From the viewer’s position in the museum, the intention is inaccessible—we cannot just go and ask Caravaggio what he intended. We only see a painting in front of us, so we cannot know whether the beauty of the painting corresponds to Caravaggio’s intentions. At best, as viewers without contextual knowledge (which might come from one of Caravaggio’s journals), we only have an sketchy intimation of intention expressed through the painting itself. Good intentions don’t immediately translate to good artwork, and remain relatively inaccessible. So intention itself is not what makes the art good—you are not viewing just an intention, but a concrete work.
This is merely on the viewer’s end of things, but intention seems to be more meaningful on the artist’s end of the process. For one may have an ideal in mind, an understanding of how lines and form and colors work, a position for all the elements in a frame, so that the artist’s only goal is to align the actual piece with the mental image. And so, for the artist, intention mediates the actual brushstroke and the ideal; it is the link between the artist’s mind and the piece itself. Although intention cannot account for all the elements of a painting (there will always be a margin of error), it is generally safe to assume that a work of art (but not always its meaning) is intended by the artist. (For this, we might place aside randomly-generated computer artwork, which defers the intention to non-intention, or something similar like splashing paint carelessly onto a canvas.)
There is a specific problem with photography and intention, however. But, first, let us examine a case in which intention would be clear. Look at Philippe Halsman’s “Dalí Atomicus.” It took 26 attempts to perfect, and, as an impression from the final photo, it is extremely unlikely that the scene occurred naturally. Three cats flying in the air, splashed with water; a chair, painting, stepstool, and easel floating while Dalí jumps; all well-lit. A photographer did not just sit, wait, and happen upon this scene, but was involved in the construction of it—there was a specific intention to construct the elements of the photograph for photography. The photographer’s intention created something like a performance art.
The same can be said of most studio photography; the photographer composes both the scene and intends an image. Objects and people are lit, the backdrop is chosen. Intention controls the scene, whether or not it is actually photographed.
The problem with intention arises most explicitly with a more “journalistic” approach to photography. No longer is the scene intended by the photographer. Only the photographer’s position in relation to a scene-already-given is intended. The intention becomes more selective; out of the entire scene-already-given, the photographer must select which components, which moments, which frames represent a larger goal. The photographer recontextualizes the elements of a scene—of life unfolding—into a new position, for contemplation, for shock, for whatever reason. Maybe the photographer composes things, maybe they make things look beautiful, but however much the photographer intends a scene, a photograph refers to the real world; an intention can hardly override the fact that an autonomous scene occurs, while the photographer is only there to experience, capture it, and maybe confine it to specific rules of beauty or ideology.
And so, back to the original distinction between snapshots and photos. A snapshot, in my understanding, is closer to the unfolding of life without an intention to confine it to certain rules of “beauty” or “ideology.” It is closer to the fact of life, the position of the person with the camera. A photo, on the other hand, filters this unfolding life through a certain conscious intention—it uses the scene as a means to an end, which may be purely aesthetic, or something else. I do not exactly like this distinction, because intention may be filtered to the background—intention may become part of the givenness of the scene, or the photographer’s perception of the scene (I am here because I intend to be here, and the rest will just occur out of photographic habit).
I bought a point-and-shoot camera—a Ricoh FF-90—with the intention of taking snapshots (does this fluster the snapshot-photo distinction? Maybe a little bit). For, following my professor’s distinction, a photo is slightly abstracted from real life (sometimes it creates a performance art—which might be the "art" of the photo, residing beyond the photo itself), but a snapshot occurs in the midst of it. And, it is my contention that the moments closer to “real life” in all their mistakes and un-intentions are worthy of being displayed. So throw out intention; just shoot.