On the Strange Business of Mattering

I have been worrying away at the strange question of what matters in photographs. Here is one sketch, from an introduction I wrote to some of the Prix Pictet pictures :

“There is a word in all of this upon which I would like to rely more than I can. It is a word that hardly construes as a proper verb. It’s also difficult to translate. The word is “matter”. The vast majority of pictures just don’t matter. The photographer had nothing to say, or has been unable to say something meaningful. Photography is demotic and vernacular, and much of it is of no great interest. Yet it is only within that deep mulch that the few major exceptions can be seen to flourish. At the same time photography remains a perfectly ordinary cultural activity in that it responds to analysis. A picture should be demonstrably good or bad for coherent reasons. But not everybody’s mattering is the same. The pictures presented here are very different. But every one of them matters.”

Here is another version, from a contribution I recently (December 2012) made to the day of Photobooks, at the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam.

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This is a bit more, developed partly, as it happens, in a recent correspondence with my father:

One point is that everyone has their own notion of what matters. There are as many value systems as there are observers. The problem – the place where it is easy to be mistaken for an elitist – is that everyone’s opinion is not of equal value. Mattering only happens as a result – as a stage – of concentrated looking. That needs to be done by the photographer, by the people he trusts to distribute his pictures for him, and by his viewers.

It may well be that what we share in a photograph is not just the stuff that was seen and we get the chance to see from distance, but the actual business of mattering. It may be that our engagement is not of absence brought near, but of mattering agreed upon. That can be purely of subject: it was so horrible, or so beautiful, or so important that we cannot but grant it high “mattering status”. Often it will be of the treatment: the subject is trivial, but the way it has seen (and shown) it grants it a pull on my concentration which it would not have otherwise had.

The mattering must depend on what the observer brings to the observing. But what is brought does not depend on restrictive categories (possession of a PhD, an archive of photographs, a grasp of aesthetic fashion…) All may see if they make the necessary effort to understand.

But looking at pictures with the mind fully engaged is terribly hard, and it’s made harder by the relentless triviality of so high a proportion of photography. To look means to engage memory, argument, hypothesis, imagination… as well as a tremendous filter against rubbish. To look properly means to keep the highest standard acutely in mind through the nth lousy mountain of pictures, training the faculties to be sharp when they eventually need to be. Is it any wonder that I consider that a photograph well seen is as powerful as a photograph well made? It is, you know. Loads and loads of photographs were nothing at all until somebody took the trouble to see that they were something. If it matters enough, it seems, the mattering is communicable. And that is pretty close to the heart of photography.

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8 thoughts on “On the Strange Business of Mattering

  1. Pingback: On the Strange Business of Mattering | obBLOGato

  2. Pingback: Little Fun | Blue Eyed Sight

  3. Hodgson’s comment in the extended interview on Conscientious that there are simply no digital surfaces on par with gelatin silver is complete nonsense. I would challenge him to a viewing duel in any good gallery showing large format b/w prints to tell whether they were digital or traditional. He is simply naive here regarding the nature of digital printing and various exhibition papers today. In fact, any photographer showing today is almost certainly printing digitally with as good if not better results than gelatin silver. By the way, I am a master b/w printer and don’t like seeing it disappear from view, but must accept this is the case. And I’m happy to do so when I see the results I see (e.g. Stan Douglas at David Zwirner, 2011)

    • Excuse me for chiming in, but – just out of curiosity – what digital printing method are you referring to? Printing with pigment inks?
      Thanks!

  4. Pingback: Robin Maddock – photographs that matter? | jeremy jeffs

  5. My photography/art teacher has a similar definition to define the same term your coining here. He talks about a “resisting image” which resist to the viewer view and force him to question is own way of looking to the subjet, as the subject is precisely not the only and main object of the photograph. In opposition to postals cards which are precisely forgotten 5sec after viewing as you were saying in a previous post..
    .
    There’s just a thing I would like to share with you because I care to do the distinction between “Mattering” and “Quality”. Thomas Hirschhorn as a similar approach as yours, as he put great importance into keeping the form from overwhelming the actual substance or content of his artwork.. but use a different vocabulary towards the same goal

  6. My photography/art teacher has a similar definition to define the same term your coining here. He talks about a “resisting image” which resist to the viewer view and force him to question is own way of looking to the subjet, as the subject is precisely not the only and main object of the photograph. In opposition to postals cards which are precisely forgotten 5sec after viewing as you were saying in a previous post..
    .
    There’s just a thing I would like to share with you because I care to do the distinction between “Mattering” and “Quality”. Thomas Hirschhorn as a similar approach as yours, as he put great importance into keeping the form from overwhelming the actual substance or content of his artwork.. but use a different vocabulary towards the same goal

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