"My own photographs, which are essentially done in the documentary mode, are not done in service to a cause, but as acts of preservation and personal expression. I have tried to capture the outline of what is for me a meaningful moment. I do not have a reformer's bone in my body. My wife, on the other hand, has approximately 206."
In a new collection of idiosyncratic essays on the subject of photography, Too True, K.B. Dixon offers a close-up look at an enduring fascination. A writer and photographer, Dixon comes at his enigmatic subject from every direction—from the experience of reading Roland Barthes to the question of posing, from the art of the author photo to a real-time history of the Vivian Maier phenomenon. He provides the reader with a distinctly personal take on the many mysteries of a maddening medium.
From: Lucida and Me
Any photographer whose interest in the subject extends to reading more than just his camera manuals will eventually come upon the names Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. Their books—On Photography and Camera Lucida—are canonical texts. It is difficult to read anything thoughtful on the subject that does not mention one or the other.
I read the Sontag book many years ago with pleasure, but came reluctantly and late to Camera Lucida—reluctantly because it was a translation, late because it was Roland Barthes. As a writer I was—and still am—wary of translation (a subject for another time). As a reader I was wary of Barthes. I had a residual bias against him, a keepsake from college where I and a thousand hapless others were compelled by sadistic professors to read such things as Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology—a bias against him for the role he played (with Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, et al.) as a founding father of “Theory,” the torturous gobbledygooking of literary study that did for literary criticism what smallpox did for the Plains Indians.
From: Not So Quick: Notes on The Photo Album
Several years ago I wrote a short, unconventional novel titled The Photo Album. It was a catalogue of imaginary photographs, an idiosyncratic mix of character study and meditation—a glimpse into the life of a peculiar photographer named Michael Quick and a questioning, if somewhat cursory, examination of the medium. It was a work of fiction, and while many of this fictional character's attitudes toward photography were my own, many were not. There has been over time some confusion about this. People familiar with the book have assumed they are familiar with my feelings about the medium, and I have on more than a few occasions been compelled to defend or to disavow Mr. Quick's musings. As time has gone on I have felt more keenly a certain pressure to clarify my position in relation to his, to discuss both our agreements and our disagreements.
The book is divided into 120 short chapters—some are a sentence or two, others a paragraph, still others a page or two. At the top of each chapter is a graphic—an empty picture frame, a numbered "plate" that holds the imaginary photograph described or alluded to in the text below it. This text carries both the story of the narrator's life as well as his ruminations on the nature of photography.
I have never been an advocate of the "snapshot" aesthetic. I have some sympathy for it—especially insofar as it is a reaction to the contrived and airless alternative so popular with a certain downtown crowd—but I find most of these sorts of pictures interesting only as illustrations of a theory, a theory that seems to me conceived in desperation.
I would say the indomitable Mr. Quick and I are in essential agreement here.
I like this aesthetic's commitment to the everyday and to photography's unique relationship to reality, but I do not share its suspicion of thoughtfulness. There is a religious reverence for the spontaneous at the center of this aesthetic, an anti-art bias that conveniently discounts talent and tribulation. While there are things I like about some of these sorts of photographs—their vitality, their immediacy—there are two things in particular about this idealization of the impulse that trouble me. One is its anti-intellectual nature. The other is a certain piety at the heart of this cult—the feeling that the spontaneous, predominantly unmediated response to certain visual sensations captures something primal and authentic and that this primal, authentic thing lends the resulting photograph a certain sort of moral authority. This romantic conception of the impulse is noble-savage nonsense. It fails to take into account or simply ignores the many dubious sources of impulse and the many complex sources of authenticity. It feels false, facile, self-aggrandizing.