Zenfolio | Matt Mathews | Photographs as Metaphors

Photographs as Metaphors

October 04, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Jewelry Craftsman, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 2013


I have come to believe that the art form most similar to photography is poetry. The poet aims for an economy of words, subtracting all extraneous ones in the pursuit of highly concentrated meaning. Photographers do the same. We seek to concentrate meaning by the subtraction of all elements in a scene that might dilute it. And like the poet, we must embrace inherited forms for our creativity.  Just as with the poet who chooses to write a haiku or sonnet, the photographer chooses to work within inherited structures, aesthetic forms, and visual traditions that place constraints on the creative act. Such constraints, however, far from stifling creativity, call it forth. And finally, like poets, photographers use rhyme schemes. Photographs hold our attention quite often because their visual elements curiously echo one another, creating a pleasing visual rhyme. In Jewelry Craftsman, for example, we might notice that the craftsman holds in his right hand a clip that faintly echos the end of his prosthesis. Or again, as we look a bit longer, we might notice the rhyme between the missing letter of "Handcrafted" and the craftsman's missing hand.

But most importantly, poems and photographs traffic in metaphors. Etymologically, metaphor is interesting. Metaphorein in Greek literally means "to carry over" or to "carry beyond," and here is a curious thing. Metaphors carry us over a gap between two worlds of meaning. And yet, in carrying us over, there remains an elusive beyondness to the new land of meaning that prevents us from fully occupying and domesticating it. Metaphors bring into view a great beyond, and they tease us by letting us visit and even touch it briefly but never own, possess, or fully control it. Metaphors, to borrow a phrase from the Hungarian photographer Brassai, "suggest rather than insist."

The late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously spoke of metaphors as having "a surplus of meaning," by which he meant that metaphors can never be fully translated into straightforward pedestrian prose without losing something in translation.  When explanatory prose reaches out to grasp the meaning that metaphor throws out in front of us, its reach is never quite long enough. The metaphor eludes conceptual mastery, insisting on an element of indeterminacy and openness beyond exhaustive translation. This playful surplus of meaning is what holds our imagination even as it confounds the reductive impulses of the the mind. We get tangled up in metaphors, and in their bondage we find freedom and delight.  In the swirling world of the metaphor, we touch levels of cognitive and affective meaning in ourselves and in the world that have hitherto eluded us.

Jewelry Craftsman is a visual metaphor.  When I look at it, I am confronted by the fragility of human existence, by the power of beauty to embrace loss, tragedy, and brokenness in an act of redemptive transfiguration.  I am confronted with the constant interplay of the organic and mechanical in modern life. I am reminded that much of life has an improvisational character where we must learn to make our jewelry with what's left over. Jewelry Craftsman throws out in front of us the tangle of our own loss and triumph, our own stubborn knots of brokenness, creativity, and new possibilility.

But look again at Jewelry Craftsman. It is at once less and more than all this.  My hope is that it's worth more than a thousand words.


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