on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Poetic Odds

Toward subjective expression and away from objective realism

Guy Tal

Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US.


Photography’s potential as a great image-maker and communicator is really no different from the same potential in the best poetry where familiar, everyday words, placed within a special context, can soar above the intellect and touch subtle reality in a unique way. ~ Paul Caponigro

It’s interesting how often artists, including photographers, refer to poetry when describing their work and philosophy. The correlation is easy to understand when considering that the word “poetry” derives from a Greek word meaning to create or to bring something into being. This definition is close to that of the word “art,” derived from a Latin word referring also to items brought into being by human skill.

The distinction between prose and poetry in writing is analogous to the distinction between representation and artistic expression in photography.

The distinction between prose and poetry in writing is analogous to the distinction between representation and artistic expression in photography. In both cases, the difference comes down to how one expresses meaning: literally or metaphorically, objectively or subjectively, decisively or ambiguously, descriptively or implicitly.

One glaring difference between writing and photography, however, is this: in writing, neither poets nor journalists try to assert their own style as the only valid form of writing or to demonise others. In photography, expressing meaning poetically, departing from objective representation when it serves no useful purpose or even distracts, is still often met with ire. In writing, no journalist is concerned that the existence of poetry may diminish the importance or credulity of reportage, and no poet worries about readers feeling deceived if they realise that poetic verses are often not meant as statements of fact. In this sense, the analogy also makes it plain how far photography still has to go as an art form, if only just to catch up to where other media already are.

Guy Tal - Poetic Odds 1

Pondering the challenge facing photographers aspiring to creative expression, W. Eugene Smith wrote, “I am constantly torn between the attitude of the conscientious journalist who is a recorder and interpreter of the facts and of the creative artist who often is necessarily at poetic odds with the literal facts.”

Despite such historical figures acknowledging the artistic potential of photography, many photographers today still wish to clip photography’s expressive wings: to renounce its ability to serve as a medium for visual poetry, distinct from but equal in importance to its ability to serve as a medium for factual representation.

I find it unfortunate that any photographer would feel torn between these two intents as both are squarely within the capacities of photography and only in contention because of misinformed assumptions about non-existent limitations inherent in the medium. There is no practical reason—not even in terms of photographic purity, however one chooses to define it—why photographs can’t serve both purposes without diminishing either.

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