reflections on photographic implications from a twentieth century literary critic

Sometimes, one’s interest in photography is ignited by an unexpected source.

I recently purchased a copy of E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India and decided to read an original introduction to this novel by Peter Burra that was first published in 1934. The writer uses the male gender in his description but this need not hinder an appreciation of what he has to say which still seems relevant today.

He starts by writing about the creative impulse … “Perhaps it is chance, more than any particular devotion, that determines a man in his choice of medium.” I find this true of my decision to pursue an interest in photography; often, I think I should be playing music or writing as these seem for sensitive forms of expression. However, photography is a form of expression that is possible in my way of life in a way that music or writing may not be.

Burra continues by writing that “The distinctions between the functions of one art and another is not clear; they have a tendency to overlap … which prevents definition” This is very true of today’s photographic discourse in which critics look for ways to define photography and the qualities of the photograph.

Burra writes that people “have set themselves to define the difference between the real life which we live and the life which the arts present to us.” He continues ” … the artist is faced with the problems of confining his impressions of that life into a space which is infinitely smaller than itself and with one of the dimensions removed.” its’ about putting chaos into order!

Art tends to present life as a tidy affair which in reality it is not. The more life-like art is, the more nonsensical it appears to be.

However, it what Burra writes about Forester’s wish that the novel could express something more than just a story that interested me since I often feel limited by the photographic medium only leaving one with a recorded image which is perhaps all the viewer sees; one wants to say much more than “this is what happened” as usually the choice of subject is a response to something else that one wants to convey. For instance, an image of an old man might mean old age to the viewer when one actually wants to point out the wisdom or compassion that are inherent in his look.

When Burra was writing, there was very little if any appreciation of photography as an art, and yet his words today echo the medium’s concerns.