Quinton Gordon: The Authorship of a Photograph


Quinton Gordon is an award winning photographer, teacher and publisher. His work has been featured in numerous international publications, documentary projects and exhibitions in Canada, the United States and New Zealand. Quinton Gordon teaches The Truth About Photographs and other workshops for Leica Akademie North America. A complete list of upcoming workshops can be found at here.

It is late 2012, the camera is ubiquitous, and everyone is a “photographer”.

The pursuit of recognition in the cyber worlds of Facebook, Flickr and Twitter have fueled a mass obsession with instant gratification, and all to often, an unfounded glorification of the posted images and their makers.

Advancements in digital technology have opened manifold new creative possibilities, but the developments have also offered the convenient allusion that making great work is as easy as a few clicks of the mouse. Often technology seems to drive the medium as automated cameras and software algorithms replace the efforts of skilled and thoughtful photographers, who can now make hundreds, or even thousands of images in a single outing.

After twenty years of travel and assignment photography, I was at a career crossroads.  Disenchanted by the developments in my chosen profession, I felt like there was only a trace of my own signature left on my work. But, unwilling to relinquish my love of photography, I gave myself an assignment, to rediscover my identity as a photographer.

The key to this assignment was to focus on work I could dive into and make locally because accessibility would be fundamental to the process. I knew that I had to be able to work almost daily and that the process would take time. For the first year I made photographs that felt empty, as if they belonged to someone else, but eventually a direction emerged. As the work unfolded, my understanding, authenticity, and authorship of the images followed.

Object driven photography seeks only to record what a subject looks like. The rendering of that subject may be beautifully executed, or in other words, picturesque, and while this may offer a pleasurable pursuit, the photographs will have little communication value and will not add to a greater conversation. These are photographs “of” things, and our world is full of photographs “of” things, many thousands of them, we really don’t need more.

However, if you believe, as I do, in the power of the still photographic image, then the motivation for making photographs shifts away from the pursuit of the picturesque, and moves toward developing a strong visual language. When I teach workshops, including those for Leica Akademie, I encourage my students to find their own language with in the common elements of photography. This is about finding authorship, and it requires that a photographer makes the effort to look into themselves first, before they can point their lens out at the world. I’m not talking about self-portraits in the literal sense, but rather about discovering that we are the only unique part of our images, especially in a world where the technology is striving to homogenize the image making process by putting the same cameras and software in everyone’s hands. Knowing who we are and working closer to our hearts allows us to inform our work with something original and authentic.

My assignment was a search for authenticity and authorship in my own photography. Over a three-year period of making these photographs I was able to dive deeply into the process, and to let go of any consideration for how the work would be received. Photographing and editing fell into a rhythm that in time revealed more personal sensibilities in my creative vision.

Working at home was new to me as well. My professional practice had been largely based in traveling out, in photographing the other, but now I was working in my own backyard. Although I was looking at the world around me, what I was really photographing was a reflection of myself.

About two years into the project I was also rediscovering my love of books and the reminder of how powerful a carefully edited and sequenced book of still photography could be. With this in mind, I began to assemble work prints on the wall of my studio, and as new images were added others could be removed, and their relative positions adjusted until a sequence emerged.

Mile Zero: A Place Uncertain, is not a collection of images that are representative of a physical environment, they are metaphors for a place lost in the world and for my relationship to that place. As the idea to make a book from the work took a deep hold on me, and it became significant to make the book by hand.

I have always subscribed to the philosophy that the physical object of art must inherently carry forward the conceptual qualities of the work. These photographs had come from a place of raw emotion and as such, the book needed to feel raw, not overly polished and perfect. It took several incarnations and mock-ups to find the right size, format, and construction. Since I was planning to print and bind all copies of the book by hand, the edition needed to be small. Limited to just 20 copies, plus a few artist proofs, I set about printing, sewing and making each book. Making a book by hand is more work then you can imagine, but the quiet hours of labor proved to be as rewarding as being out with my camera.

Contemporary photography is at risk of loosing touch with three primary concepts that I feel are essential to making good work; time, effort, and craftsmanship. This project reconnected me to the value of time over hast, to the simple physical labor required to finish the book, and to the benefits crafting an object by hand. Of these, time is perhaps the most significant. The investment of time given to every step of the process from making the photographs to editing, sequencing and working with the results in an intimate way enriched my understanding of the photographs and ultimately of my identity as a photographer.

Good work does not come to us with ease. Good photography comes when we invest ourselves deeply in the process, take the time required, and are willing to work for it. The payoff is that photography becomes so much more fulfilling and rewarding when we stop simply filling hard drives and bring consideration to our photography and find ways to give our photographs a life, as prints, books, or multimedia presentations.

-Quinton Gordon

Mile Zero: A Place Uncertain, was released by Reciprocity Editions in 2012. Edition: 20. To purchase a copy, click here: http://luzgallery.bigcartel.com/product/mile-zero-by-quinton-gord

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21 comments

  • Nothing goes better with photography than a nice big helping of existentialism. I love it when I read an article I should have written but didn’t — it saves me a significant amount of time and trouble! But then, when we met last summer, it was rather obvious our schticks were schtuck in the same muck. And I must say, I could look at your laundry room photo all day trying to decide if the light is emanating from the trash can or being absorbed by it… I’m leaning toward the latter.

    An excellent article. Thank you. And congratulations on the handmade limited edition book. Once again, you’ve beaten me to the punch (pun not intended), as I’ve just finished reading a book on bookbinding and stitching techniques…

  • Brilliant. Succinct and thought provoking article….and yet…I can’t help but feel that somehow you have been inside my mind and stolen it from me 😀

    Thank you.

  • Egor,

    Thank you, I look forward to our paths crossing again soon, and to seeing what you do with your developing book binding skills.

    Cheers,
    Quinton

  • Toby,

    Thank you, I think there are many that are of like mind, and I aim only to add to our dialogue. Thanks for contributing as well.

    Regards,
    Quinton

  • “… essential to making good work; time, effort, and craftsmanship.”
    Amen to that.
    A deftly written and timely article that I think touches the heart of the issue many of us wrestle with for a variety of reasons: age, technology, a question of purpose and re-evaluation…
    Lovely read, thank-you.

  • Eric,

    Good question. I was using “allusion” in reference to the idea of myth, but it is entirely possible that “illusion” is as, or more appropriate. Either way, the point is not lost but welcome the comment of those with more literary prowess then I.

    Thanks for commenting.
    Quinton

  • Aaron,

    Thank you. I fully agree, I meet many photographers in my workshops who are struggling with these issues, but I’m fortunate to work with people and open up the dialogue along with a strong sense of direction in their work as they move forward.

    Glad you enjoyed the article.

    Quinton

  • Quinton,

    Great to see your work featured here! Wonderful stuff as always. And the workshop experience has really helped to give me that “strong sense of direction”. I am now thinking in new terms about what I photograph. Much appreciated.

    Tom

  • A very interesting article with lots of truths in it.

    I’m looking at tons of pictures every day and I do often see photos that are similar to the ones exhibited here. In fact, in times I take pictures that could be perfectly in line with the ones presented here.

    Yet, common taste rarely shows appreciation for this kind of still life photography. Pictures that are in some ways spectacular (artistic, colorful, showing extreme situations, whatever) are much more popular even among the broad majority of photographers. And I don’t talk about quality here. I feel that if you’re occupied with photography, especially artistic photography, you can much more understand other photographer’s minds and feelings as non-photographers. As a consequence photographers are more inclined to “understand” your kind of pictures than an ordinary consumer who is not obsessed with photography.

    On the other hand, there are photographers like you that do get and audience – and rightfully so – with this kind of material.

    My conclusion is that it’s completely arbitrary how a photography looks. It’s more of a matching game. If a product finds an audience appreciating the product it becomes popular. Targeting people who are interested in Leica cameras, especially the classic ones – M6 being a lighthouse among others like the M Monochrom or the M9 – works especially well with photography like yours. I doubt that the typical Nikon/Canon photographer is interested in producing an outcome like this.

    So, talking about authorship in my opinion is being able to teach people to bring your own personality as an artist in line with your artistic outcome. It’s the package that defines the product, not the photography alone.

  • Tom,

    Thank you for your comments.

    It was a real pleasure having you in the workshop and Im excited to see the work you are producing.

    Quinton

  • Terrific piece, Quinton, and echoes a lot of my own thoughts about how technology and particularly social media has distorted the creative process. Sure, it has its benefits, but it also can shackle the Inner Critic that Auden spoke of, before that Inner Critic has had a chance to mature.

    Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  • Tried to post it in the morning, but it somehow didn’t go through…

    A very interesting article with lots of truths in it.

    I’m looking at tons of pictures every day and I do often see photos that are similar to the ones exhibited here. In fact, in times I take pictures that could be perfectly in line with the ones presented here.

    Yet, common taste rarely shows appreciation for this kind of still life photography. Pictures that are in some ways spectacular (artistic, colorful, showing extreme situations, whatever) are much more popular even among the broad majority of photographers. And I don’t talk about quality here. I feel that if you’re occupied with photography, especially artistic photography, you can much more understand other photographer’s minds and feelings as non-photographers. As a consequence photographers are more inclined to “understand” your kind of pictures than an ordinary consumer who is not obsessed with photography.

    On the other hand, there are photographers like you that do get and audience – and rightfully so – with this kind of material.

    My conclusion is that it’s completely arbitrary how a photography looks. It’s more of a matching game. If a product finds an audience appreciating the product it becomes popular. Targeting people who are interested in Leica cameras, especially the classic ones – M6 being a lighthouse among others like the M Monochrom or the M9 – works especially well with photography like yours. I doubt that the typical Nikon/Canon photographer is interested in producing an outcome like this.

    So, talking about authorship in my opinion is being able to teach people to bring your own personality as an artist in line with your artistic outcome. It’s the package that defines the product, not the photography alone.

  • ‘Time’…(not many folks willing to invest in it)’Effort’…(not many willing to put it forth) ‘Craftsmanship’…(Lost in the homogenous nature of this period in time)…sorry to sound harsh, but as one who takes the time and effort in building my own cameras, it saddens me that the folks around me refuse (or have forgotten) how to slow down and look. And possibly re-learn how to see again. A great article/project. heartfelt and authentic.

  • I thought of this a few days back and I think this thought poses a good argument against a few things that are being exposed here:

    “Photography can fool photographers in two ways: It can make them believe they took a photograph of a subject rather than of their view and it can make them believe the photograph they took shows their view rather than the subject. To every photographer should be clear that taking a photograph is basically impossible because the reason behind a photograph (the photographer’s view) can never appear on the photograph itself (only the subject of the photographer’s view can). And this is what makes photography such a great and unique artistic medium.”

    I also think it’s quite missing the point if we believe that to make a “photograph” requires time, effort and skills. because we need to realise we “take a photo” with every look we make. by putting a camera in front of that look we only depict the object of that look not the look itself. there is no time, effort or skills (and equipment) that could depict a thought. the idea of a photograph is only present in our minds. both in the mind of the photographer or those who look at the photograph after it’s taken. it’s not the photograph that tells us something is us who read a photograph in a certain way. what we call a photograph is nothing but a meaning that we apply to an (otherwise meaningless) image. that’s why time, effort and skills can’t in the end make any more “meaningful” photographs than no time, no effort and no skills would. time, effort and skills are only there to apply meaning to a certain activity. it’s the same kind of delusion. we like to believe that if we take more time, if we put more effort and if we use more skills then something will be more meaningful. it wouldn’t be because it can’t be it’s just what we believe in and that’s why we do it. it’s simply more meaningful to us. that’s why in the end we take pictures as well. every picture that is consciously taken by a person is taken because considered meaningful. no picture is taken because the person who takes it thinks the picture is not worth being taken. that makes every picture that is taken consciously of course a meaningful one. we take a picture because something in our mind triggered it. that what gives it meaning.

    of course we then thought that when it comes to “art” this wasn’t enough. that something being meaningful is not enough to be artistically valid already. and what we basically did was to think of certain requirements that are necessary for something to be an art photograph rather than just a photograph. and of course different people thought of different requirements. but again by doing so we do nothing more than expressing what is meaningful to us not what is objectively meaningful because there is not such thing. meaning is always subjective. yet the image itself is not subjective and it’s not meaningful. despite the time, effort and skills you put in it. the meaning of a photograph is always applied to the photograph is something that exists outside the photograph.

    of course you might then say but why do certain people “recognize” the same meaning in a particular image if the meaning was not implied in the image itself? it’s very simple: because they applied the same meaning to it. the fact that often people can recognize something doesn’t mean the recognition itself is not subjective.

    therefore good photography is what one can recognize as good photography. for some people it might be the kind of photography you prefer for some others it might be something else.

    that’s why I believe that true value of photography is in the image not in the meaning of an image. the true value of photography is in the quality (quality in the sense of what it is actually made of) of the image we are able to produce using a photographic medium. painting also produces images that can be seen as meaningful but they don’t hold the same quality photographs do. and this quality is related to this connection (that is at the same time disconnection) between reality and a photographic image. what some people think is the biggest disadvantage of photography is at the same its biggest advantage – some people say photography can’t be art because the image is taken by the camera but at the same that that’s exactly the true artistic value of photography because no other medium can offer such kind of disconnection that at the same time offers a different way to connect with our thoughts and feelings etc. and I think a photographer should treasure that rather than discard it. it’s pointless when a photographer is trying to be yet another artist with a camera. a camera is not just a tool it’s the essence of photography as art. both the physical camera and a virtual one.

  • An Be,

    Thank you for your thought provoking and reflective response. You are making some very interesting points about the dynamic relationships between seeing, perception, and image, through the medium of photography.

    Ultimately my reason for making photographs is to investigate a line of thinking. For me, it is visual note taking, and it is the recording of an idea in a physical form that allows me to consider the thought from a new perspective, as well as providing a way to present these ideas to others. But the thought remains open to responses that I can not control, nor do I wish to.

    Thank you for contributing to the dialogue.

    Quinton

  • Tilman,

    It was only when I let go of any consideration for my audience that I was able to work with authenticity. I believe that photography is an investigation, away of exploring internal lines of thinking. By choosing the medium of photography we have photographs that are records of this investigation and where it takes us.

    The response of others is beyond our control. All we can do is follow the investigation with integrity. The audience will respond according to their own perceptions, tastes, and desires regardless of what we do, but if our photographs are authentic then we have achieved something of value.

    Thank you for your comments.

    Quinton

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