A Photographer and an Essayist Walk into a Bar–Joe Bonomo

—What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.

—Right. And what makes an essay a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are language and time.


—Taking photographs can assuage the itch for possession sparked by the beauty of a place; our anxiety over losing a precious scene can decline with every click of the shutter.

—But every photo’s a documentary of loss, isn’t it? What’s static in an image is finally overcome by change, what Orwell in a different context calls deterioration. An essay excavates that kind of loss and returns, with something, though not necessarily at the starting point. A photo’s a weed in an overgrown garden.


—That portion of reality that can be composed within a frame can be understood. —OK, but what if you and I are looking through the same frame and see things differently? What about what’s outside the frame? That’s where an essay goes, beyond the frame of what can be understood.


—To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.

—Yeah, no doubt. Slide me those peanuts.


—We are the strongest filter we can place before the lens. We point the lens both outward and inward.

—What does the photographer see when he points the lens inward, darkness or light?


—Maybe a photo represents the old quest for truth and a digital image is part of the current search for the good fantasy.

—I’m sot sure that I understand you. Yeah, one’s Facebook or Instagram persona is as refined and meticulously curated as any photo exhibition, but were photographs from another century any less fantastic in their manipulation of space and story?

I see that I’m asking a lot of questions tonight­, sorry—


—When I photograph, I spend a lot of time waiting for a subject to evolve.

—An essay is a kind of slow development, too, I think. In an imagined place murky figures and ideas take shape, chemical reactions of need and memory and truth doing their work, language emerging in the light of a door being opened.


—The irony is that having a photo doesn’t mean you’re going to remember. It only feels like you have a vast repository of memories—


—A number of photos prompt a certain kind of forgetting.

—And when an essay explores that kind of forgetting, it comes up with less than with more, unless loss is what it’s after. Forgetting’s a room where the light switch is broken. We need a new kind of illumination.


—Painting directly from nature is difficult as things do not remain the same; the camera helps to retain the picture in your mind.

—As in nature, in memory things do not remain the same, either. And do you believe that a camera helps you to retain? It seems to me that a photo crops so much more than it preserves.


—Creating a painting from a photograph is like staging a theatrical set and then trying to live in it.

—I don’t have a script yet. And where are my marks? What persona am I playing? Lighting? “Sepia,” “antique.” What do these words mean to an essayist?


—It is not in the nature of lenses to tell the whole truth—


—They are instruments of exaggeration and belittlement.

—Great. The essayist’s darkroom manipulations originate in sentiment, language, desire. We employ the writerly equivalent of wide-angle and close-up lenses, and filters. Choose from Denial, Self-Aggrandizing, or Heroic preset filters. Fish-bowl lens? Puberty. You and I might define “noise” differently but it’s still noise. We might define “exposure” differently but it’s still exposure.


—The picture represents the feelings and point of view of the intelligence behind the camera.

—Intelligence. Do you mean personality? Moral character? Intelligence as a measure of skill-level or of intuition? Either way, yeah, I think that I agree with you.


—Remember that photos lie about values in the distance; they show distant shadows too dark. The best way to know the right values is to observe.

—Yep, and an essay lies about values in the distance, too, and the essayist needs to acknowledge this. (Or not.) An essay is saturated with something other than color, light, and dark. But an essay, too, looks looks looks.


—Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.

—Not everybody believes photographs, but people trust essays. I’d like to think this, anyway.


—A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.



—The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.

—Yep. That’s great. I need another drink.


—I have gradually confused photography with life.

—I get so confused about life photography art.

—I know I know. Last round’s on me.



At the bar with me, in order of holding forth: John Berger, Alain de Botton, Robert Brault, Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Paul Caponigro, Joe Nalven, Peter Fiore, Martin Hand, Theodore Robinson, Michael Chesley Johnson, Walter J. Phillips, Alexey Brodovitch, Martha Saudek, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Jerry Uelsmann, and William Wegman.


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