Limitations of Language

Language is a detriment, an earthbound limitation from which the poet suffers more than anyone else. At times he can actually hate it, denounce it, and execrate it—or rather hate himself for being born to work with this miserable instrument. He thinks with envy of the painter whose language—color—is instantly comprehensible to everyone from the North Pole to Africa; or of the musician whose notes also speak in every human tongue and who commands so many new, individual, subtly differentiated languages, from simple melody to the hundred voices of the orchestra, from horn to clarinet, from violin to harp.

~Hermann Hesse

Pablo Picasso, speaking with his friend Brassaï (aka Gyula Halász—the photographer nicknamed, “the eye of Paris”), commented, “When you see what you express through photography, you realize all the things that can no longer be the objective of painting. […] Photography has arrived at a point where it is capable of liberating painting from all literature, from the anecdote, and even from the subject. In any case, a certain aspect of the subject now belongs to the domain of photography. So shouldn’t painters profit from their newly acquired liberty, and make use of it to do other things?”

Although no new medium has yet been invented that overlaps with photography to the degree that the invention of photography overlapped with painting, photographic technology has advanced so much since the medium’s inception that in a sense photography has liberated itself from many of its own former constraints. Shouldn’t photographers, in the words of Picasso, also profit from our newly acquired liberties and make use of them to do “other things”? This seems a rhetorical question today when so many photographers already do much more with the medium than to work within the constraints of, again borrowing from Picasso, literature (documentation), anecdotes (right place, right time), and the representation of subjects.

Like any other advancement in art, the liberation of photography from the constraints of former styles, expectations, attitudes, and technical limitations, has drawn the ire of some conservatives and purists, but for better or worse, as the expression goes, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Or, in the words of Claude Monet (at a time when impressionism was the art revolution du jour), “Lots of people will protest that it’s quite unreal and that I’m out of my mind, but that’s just too bad.”

No doubt, nearly a century and a half after Monet’s “Impression, soleil levant,” no one thinks of impressionism as anything but a perfectly valid style of painting, and hardly a revolutionary one at that; and soon the same will be true of any number of now-novel styles of photography emerging from greater freedoms now afforded us by technological advancements and by the ongoing evolution of thoughts on art. Just like Picasso’s Cubism expanded the expressive vocabulary of paintings beyond realistic representation and beyond impressionism, so will many of today’s trends ultimately amount to expanding photography’s expressive powers beyond those same things, and likely beyond anything possible in painting (just as painting has advanced its expressive scope beyond what is possible in photography). Those protesting artistic revolutions have, time and again, found themselves, as they say, “on the wrong side of history.”

Perhaps a more interesting question arising from Picasso’s comment, is not whether photographers today should do “other things” (the nature of progress makes that a practical inevitability) but, given that different media have different means and ranges of expression, whether artists should strive for those realms of expression exclusive to, or best-suited for, their medium, rather than those that overlap with others. Picasso obviously believed that painters should venture beyond mere representation, given that photography is (arguably) better suited for it, but he was not alone. Composer Gustav Mahler expressed a similar sentiment about music, writing, “as long as I can summarize my experience in words, I would certainly not make any music about it.” Poet Rainer Maria Rilke also distinguished the expressive powers of art from those of words, writing, “Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art.” And photographer Ernst Haas wrote, “To compete with the painter is not really our destiny; we are on the way to speaking our very own language. With it we will have to create our own literature.”

I’ve already said elsewhere that the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” makes as much sense as “a book is worth a thousand bananas.” To be sure, I’ve had bananas that were much more satisfying than some books, and I know of some simple expressions more powerful than most pictures. However, I have come to believe that while words and photographs may augment and enhance each other in synergetic ways—creating wholes larger than the sums of their parts—they are only interchangeable up to a point. Some things can be expressed just as well in one medium or the other, some things can be expressed better in one medium over the other, and some things can be expressed only in one medium and not the other. It was something of a revelation to me to conclude that those photographs I think of most highly (my own and others’) fall into that latter category: expressing things not only better than words can, but in ways that words cannot. Indeed, I now strive to only make these kinds of photographs: photographs that may be augmented by words but whose effect can’t be described in words—not a thousand, not a hundred thousand, not any other number.

I found it interesting when a photographer recently described to me an exercise he hoped would help him find his expressive voice. He selected a large number of photographs he liked and took the time to write down what he (thought he) liked about them, looking for commonalities. Not surprisingly, although he found great inspiration and was prompted to consider some new ideas, the exercise did not lead him to any revelations about his own artistic aspirations.

I believe there is great value in studying other artists’ work. Admittedly, I’m perplexed by such things as “photographic celibacy” if only for the fact that I love photography, art, and expressions of creativity, and it seems odd to me to deny myself these things for the sole reason that they were made by other people. I believe that seeing and assimilating as much art and knowledge as one can, can be useful but not in the sense of identifying those things one “likes,” rather in informing one of things already done and discovered by others. Certainly, some things done by others may overlap with one’s own sensibilities, but more important, they may also help one identify things that  others have not (or not yet) done. It is within this realm of things not yet done by others, that one is most likely to discover what is unique about one’s own thoughts, ideas, and artistic sensibilities.

Attempting to define your own style only by mashing up ideas from others will only get you to a point. For starters, if that’s all you do, you all but guarantee that your work will forever be nothing but derivative. Less obvious perhaps is this: attempting to express in the language of words things originally expressed in the language of photography, will almost certainly lead you to mischaracterize the real reasons you may like or dislike some photographs. This is not only because some of these things transcend the expressive range of words, but also because many of them arise form subconscious intuitions—places in your mind that you have no conscious insight into and no knowledge of why they make you feel a certain way. Anjan Chatterjee, director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, explains the limitations not only of language but also of science, to describe our responses to art, writing, “We encounter limits of what neuroscience can contribute to aesthetics when we consider meaning in art. Neuroscience has something to say about the way we recognize representational paintings. […] But this knowledge is about our general understanding of these categories of objects and not about the particular response to a Cézanne still life, or a Rembrandt portrait, or a Turner landscape.”

When it comes to “finding” a personal artistic style, your best bet is ultimately to rely on intuition, and on trial and error, because intuition reflects not only the foundations of your formal knowledge and your understanding of art, but also all the complexity of the person that you are at a point in time. Given that even our current sciences cannot explain meaning in art beyond a very rudimentary level, it would be futile to assume that anyone else—scientists, photographers, artists, etc.—can give you a clear understanding of it, let alone of yourself, and certainly not in ways necessarily expressible in words.

Trial and error are useful not only because there are no known shortcuts to a truly personal artistic style, but also because there would be a penalty to pay in taking such a shortcut even if there was one—the penalty of preventing yourself from forming and maturing a deeper understanding of yourself, your art, and the expressive powers of your medium, which the very concepts of growth and maturity imply must happen over time, learning not only from what works but also, and just as much, from what doesn’t work. And among those things that don’t work, as I explain here, is trying to shoehorn your artistic style and notions of meaning in your art into words.

Words evolved for specific purposes and impose limitations sometimes rooted in obsolete ideas (just ask any writer about the difficulty of writing gender-neutral narratives in most current languages). In the words of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings.” Don’t let the limitations of the language of words become the limitations to your ability to express yourself in other media: in the language of music, in the language of painting, in the language of mathematics, in the language of photography, etc. Each has its own range of expression, and each possesses at least some range of expressive powers that transcends that of other media.

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2 thoughts on “Limitations of Language

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  1. You explain the failure of words to express certain things and yet you still find the words to express yourself so well. I also am perplexed by those that deliberately avoid looking at other people’s photographs. I am constantly drawing inspiration from others but also like you said, not only seeing what has already been done and building off of those discoveries, but realizing what no one has yet achieved as well. I also just enjoy looking at the world through others’ eyes, especially yours. Thank you for your thoughtful photography and words once again, Guy!

  2. This is probably the best essay I’ve ever seen that makes the point that photography should not attempt to mimic painting, or other art media, but strike out on its own, with its own language. That’s still under development, of course, and we should strive to better understand what some of the latest attempts at photography are doing and how they are evolving. It’s all for the better…

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