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.