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June 2011

Discussing a work of art is but the starting point for dialogue, with oneself or with our friends,
with a view to increasing and deepening intellectual enjoyment. And everything that follows is not
in the least able to substitute for or interpret the personal adventure of communicating
with an important photograph and a great photographer.

Roy De Carava

It is common knowledge that in order to understand a photographer’s oeuvre one should see more than one of his photographs. However, it is also true that if one cannot detect important elements of the artist’s world in at least one good photograph, then the danger exists of appraising his many photographs on the basis of judgements that are related more to the photograph’s form or subject than to its content.

Roy De Carava would pass the above tests in flying colours, no matter how his work is appraised. In fact, the photograph selected for the current column could be any one of the photographs from his exceptionally important oeuvre and the comments in each case would be absolutely identical.

The charm and mystery of every good photograph lies in the fact that a great conflict is enacted in an infinitesimal space. This conflict releases the forces of a primarily visual emotion. To create this conflict and arouse emotion the photographer is armed with many weapons, which he should hide assiduously and from which he should exclude the most obvious ones, such as a caption or a crude symbolism, or even an enormous print. At the same time, a good photograph is also recognized by two other important parameters. Firstly, all its elements, even those that appear insignificant, participate equally in the total. And secondly, two dimensions always coexist on its surface (and not in its interpretation), two opposite directions or readings, which ensure dialogue and conflict, and thus cause tension and emotion. One-track photographs appease and put to sleep. Comprehensive photographs generate questions and create interest.

Our entry into the particular photograph is purely visual, that is, our view collides with the robustness of the visual proposal. However, what comes next makes our first contact even more interesting. On the one hand, there is the real event of a composition that is anything but decorative, since the table and the jacket denote the actual presence of the person who is either eating or has just eaten, while, on the other hand, there is an intense sense of a suspended theatricality. It is as if the world is a stage on which a fictitious image of a meal has been set up. The most important fact is that this theatricality has been achieved by purely visual, photographic, means, such as the photograph’s black areas that exclude the remaining plausible details of real space.

In this way the natural lighting became a theatrical luminous point and the absence of information from the black areas a constituent element of the content, thus upgrading their role from a formalistic device to a real secondary part in the play. Now no one would dare mess with the silent black areas.

This duality between theatricality and reality bars the verisimilar interpretations of the photograph but releases all the arbitrary, that is, the more personal interpretations. And at the same time, it adds to the photograph question marks that allow for and prompt renewed communication with it. And – a fact which is even more commendable – all this is achieved through the very nature of the medium (absolute description) and leads to its true essence (metamorphosis of the real).