The Human Condition

| July 8, 2015

So long as we have failed to eliminate any of the causes of human despair, we do not have the right to try to eliminate those means by which man tries to cleanse himself of despair. –Antonin Artaud

It was with some delight that I recently received an academic text on photography that I had not read before. I have several of them in my library and am always glad to find new ones. It seems few bother writing such narratives, anymore, likely for the fact that the audience for them is diminishing; as art, like so many other pursuits, is progressively treated as a casual social activity and less as a calling deserving of serious, private, contemplation. Regrettably, I found the book disappointing. Like so many similar texts, it offered interesting observations, some of which I found useful. But, also like similar texts, it attempted to make general statements about photography as a singular category, failing to account fully (or even to a significant enough degree) for what photography, in all its incarnations, is about. In particular, the entire discussion presupposed that photography’s sole goal, purpose and mode is that of offering views into the so-called “human condition.”

Such a view is neither true nor useful, as it fails to acknowledge the myriad of ways in which photography can, and is, being used toward countless other purposes, a great many having nothing at all to do with human endeavors, and sometimes even in explicit repudiation of them. It also fails by making the implicit and patently incorrect assumption that photography is only important in facilitating humanity’s gaze into its own navel, glorifying its accomplishments and marveling at its failings, isolated from the greater context of existence in which humans are but a piece of a much greater puzzle. Perhaps less obviously, it also fails by virtue of the proverbial “human” whose condition is studied almost always being the one photographed, rather than the one making the photograph. And only a fool would suggest that engaging in any creative pursuit does not also affect, sometimes in very pervasive ways, the person practicing it. In fact, for many artists this enrichment of one’s own existence through art, whether related to the greater context of humanity or not, is the primary reason for pursuing their work.

As noted by Ansel Adams, most “human condition” photography is negative in character. We are good at condemning, pointing out failures and shortfalls, and exposing injustices. Ironically, however, for as much as we like to complain about our condition, collectively we are also very cynical and unappreciative of the things that may improve it. In photography this is clearly the case, as “human condition” imagery is far more readily accepted by formal art institutions than that founded in emotion, beauty and grace that are unrelated to humanity’s enterprises, yet which possess the power to inspire the human spirit. Art today, in too many cases, would rather depress, bore, or baffle its audience, rather than serve to elevate their condition, or that of the artist.

And so, I consider it important to offer what little counterbalance I can, because some of the things that most elevate my human condition are experiences and expressions that are decidedly removed from the human condition. In fact, some of my greatest joys and most meaningful times are those of which humanity and its collective preoccupations are deliberately excluded. This is not to diminish the great social value of such “human condition” work, only to say that it should not be considered photography’s defining goal, nor its most important one. Any conclusion or generalization founded in such assumption is, at best, ill-considered.

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (4)

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  1. Two thoughts:

    1. “Elevating” is the goal, though the nature of “elevation” can vary quite a bit.

    2. Insisting that photography be about some particular category of things is about as useful as insisting that music only be about a certain category of things.


  2. Brad Mangas says:

    I know I am like all before me, human. Though I live the life of the specie I feel at times separate from conditions that have pushed us all to the present. Some I long to be a greater part of but most are conditions not of my choosing or willing participation. This conflict of reality vs hope leaves space for something more. This separation and need for connection of what is to what could be is my greatest challenge for which my life must endure. In between the boundaries, in the space of the unknown art fills the void. Not with what is, but always with what could be.


  3. Francis Shum says:

    “In fact, some of my greatest joys and most meaningful times are those of which humanity and its collective preoccupations are deliberately excluded.”

    Very well said. To me, this is a state of transcendence.

  4. “We are good at condemning, pointing out failures and shortfalls, and exposing injustices”