The Photograph as Modern Mythology – Part II

One of the virtues of Myth is its ability to “bring us into a level of consciousness that is spiritual.” Myths can help put our minds “in touch with this experience of being alive” while also revealing “what human beings have in common.” These are just a few more thoughts shared by Joseph Campbell in his book The Power of Myth, and they could be equally applied to Photography. It is precisely this common experience of being human that allows us as viewers to recognize and relate to the emotion expressed in an image like the one shown below:

Photography is unique in its ability as an art form to communicate this idea of shared experience. We generally accept that what is in the photograph actually existed somewhere and that the camera was witness to a real event. In seeing a real event like the one above, and seeing it as something relatable half a world away, the photographer is able to mythologize that moment and present it as a representation of human experience.

In his wonderful apologetic essay titled On Fairy Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien elucidates the value of Fantasy as a type of storytelling. Within this type one might also include Myth, for they are largely made of the same stuff, apart from the individual stigmas that have been attached to each. Fantasy, and by extension Myth, has as one of its virtues the ability to offer its readers a sense of recovery. Tolkien states that, “Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view…‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves.” He goes on to say,

We need to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity – from possessiveness.

Tolkien cites the “making of Pegasus” as being the moment horses were ennobled, for example. In this sense, he means that once the operations of Myth were enacted upon the horse, it was revealed to mankind as a potent and majestic creature. But without Myth, the horse is just a horse, an animal of utilitarian function, discarded when no longer useful.

The photograph has the same ability as Myth to ennoble a subject. Despite the endless pictures of trees, animals, people, and any number of cliche subjects out in the world, photographers continue to photograph them again and again, when so moved. The reason for this, I think, is the ability of the camera to give a renewed vision of the world. Susan Sontag makes a comment in her book On Photography that suggests a possible reason for this ability. She says that, “photography offers instant romanticism about the present…to photograph is to confer importance.” According to this idea, the mere act of photographing a subject insists that it is something of importance. It takes that person, place, or thing and presents it as a subject profound enough to immortalize in that moment. And as Robert Adams has said in his book Beauty in Photography,

Art asserts that nothing is banal.

Not all photographs can be, nor should be, considered true mythologies. Many of them are, at best, folk tales, nursery rhymes, or bedtime stories; they’re nothing more than little vignettes of life created for the simple pleasure that the photographer derived from capturing a moment in time. That doesn’t make them bad or good, but it is important to recognize that I am not arguing for all photography to carry the weight of true Myth. I am simply making the argument that it can, and as a modern art is ideally suited to, augment the tradition of myth-making for this wide-reaching, contemporary world.

Take, as an example, the work of Robert Parkeharrison. He and his wife Shana have crafted a wonderful modern mythology in The Architect’s Brother:

(clicking on the images will take you to the section of their site where they can be seen)

Here, they give us a modern tale about an Every-man who has set himself to the task of repairing and maintaining the Earth. He uses a number of rather clever contraptions to assist him in his work (all of which the Parkeharrisons made themselves) and he’s shown in several mythically modern landscapes. The story is certainly fictional, but at the same time it is communicating an idea that is very real. There is a balance that the Every-man is trying to maintain between the modern technologies that allow society to operate and advance, and the life of the natural landscape. The application of this series is broad, and the visual language is fairly universal. Wherever people are struggling to find a balance between the past and the present, the new and the old, this series can tell that story.

Donald Miller makes a comment in his most recent book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, that both haunts me, in a sense, and motivates me at the same time. In regards to leading a meaningful life he says:

If you aren’t telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died.

This is not meant to say that nobody cares if you die. Rather, Miller is trying to communicate the possible significance of living life in a way that would make people want to read about it, the kind of life that no one wants to end. This kind of a sentiment can be uniquely applied to photographers in that to make a photograph, something has to exist in front of the camera. There is no make believe in photography. Cameras do not manufacture; they record. The photographer, by necessity, has to be a part of the story that he or she is trying to capture. Photographers are thus called to live better stories in order to tell better stories. In this sense, they are called specifically to be the shamans of our modern time.

Even in the case of the Parkeharrison work, the two of them were intimately involved with creating the objects and the scenes they needed to tell their story. In fact, Robert himself plays the role of the Every-man. The same is true of the Italian photographer Paolo Ventura. His “stories” are of a fictional time and fictional places, and the characters are figurines. But he is personally crafting every aspect of his images with his own hands. The scenes he photographs are very real in the sense that they do in fact exist before the camera:

I have chosen the work of Parkeharrison and Ventura not to insist that a photograph must be manufactured fiction in order for it to operate as Myth, but to reveal the different layers of reality that exist in the world by which Photography can convey Myth. Certainly the work of Lange (Part I of this essay) and the image by Samuel Aranda (first image of Part II) were not manufactured. They were of actual people in actual moments, possibly unaware that they were even being photographed (this is certainly the case with Aranda’s image). But these are, in my opinion, obvious examples of Photography’s ability to mythologize the human experience. While the images of Ventura, for example, seem much more distant from reality in terms of actual events, they are, in a way, just as close to reality as Lange and Aranda’s images. They are just as capable of revealing to us “what human beings have in common” and to put us “in touch with this experience of being alive.”

The ability to craft meaningful objects out of the real moments people experience everyday is, I think, what attracts so many practitioners to the art of Photography. Where symbols are desired to remind us of what it means to be human, this art form offers a unique mode by which mythologies can be conveyed. Photographs operate as such powerful symbols because they are derived from our physical world. They are a testament to the fact that Myth indeed lives among us.

Thanks again for reading,

P.S. It is my great pleasure to amend this post with the announcement of my first daughter’s birth: On this day, my wife and I are excited to welcome Jocelyn Lane Cary into our lives!


3 comments on “The Photograph as Modern Mythology – Part II

  1. robstroud says:

    Congratulations on the precious gift of your daughter!

  2. Gerard D. Eftink Gerard D. Eftink Gerard D. Eftink says:

    “Cameras do not manufacture.” However, the photographer often effects the scene. Point the camera at a pretty girl and she smiles. Walk through a crowd in Palestine and they pick up rocks to throw. When I look at a great photo, I wonder, did the subject know the photographer was aiming the camera?

    Gerard D. Eftink

    P.S., I was thinking of the first photograph of Jocelyn in the arms of Rachel when I wrote the above, particularly aware of it when I wrote the third sentence. But, if you sneak up on them, they would still be beautiful.

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