In Praise of the Single Photograph

Most of the time, I will have on my image glasses.  These virtual glasses seem to place what is before me in a 24mm by 36mm frame.  In other words, I am composing new photographs all the time.  I think it comes from having seen a lot of photographs and having taken a lot of photographs over many, many years. 

It is like an internal dialogue that takes you through a series of steps, along these lines:  “hmmm, interesting”, then “I wonder what I could do with that”, to “hmmm, that is an interesting and good composition”, to “now”, at which point I raise the camera, make my manual adjustments for speed and F-stop, I focus and press the shutter.  There is a certain rhythm to this exercise and it happens over and over again, as I move through a city, landscape or simply sit in my chair at home and watch the light move past my windows, changing light and shadow.

I have always been preoccupied with the single image.  Film never interested me, it was always about the single frame.  A small story in a single frame.

I came across a description of this single image versus a series of images by Teju Cole in “Human Archipelago”:

“A single spectacular image has its satisfactions. It is a self-contained thing, and part of its force comes from that self-containedness. It functions like a haiku. It is an image in a hurry, though it disguises that hurry somewhat.

Something else happens with images intended for a series.  These images are like individual sentences in an essay. The essay as a whole is obviously what matters, and spectacular individual sentences can go against the grain of the whole essay, unbalancing its intention.”

This goes to the point that I have raised before.  When you go to an art gallery and see an exhibition of a series of photographs on a topic or maybe a location, one of two things very often happens, either there are no sold stickers – often a little red dot – indicating that no photographs have been sold, or there will be multiple dots under the same image, suggesting that several prints of this particular image have been sold.

To me this suggests that the single image with all the dots has effectively stolen the show, as Cole says, a single sentence in the essay has spectacularly outshone all the other sentences.  Hence, a single image with other images around it to form a whole that is either the result of a gallerist insisting that a series be provided for the show, or a photographer that may have spent too much time looking at their own work, and as a result perhaps lost a bit of focus and self-evaluation.

Not to say that series cannot work.  After all, Life Magazine in its day was full of series made by very strong and very successful photographers.  But as Robert Frank described at some point – I forget where – that in his seminal book The Americans, he did not necessarily choose the best individual photograph, but created a book layout.  A different task, a different flow, and a lot of famous images, but perhaps not one single image that outshines all the others. 

Perhaps this helps describe the difference between the story and the single image.