RILKE- Letter no 1 (with comments)

Dear Photographers, this is a letter that helped me ever since I started to engage with photography. I hope you will find something here too. I have made bold the parts that respond to your requests for my looking at your work.

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Portrait by @mayankaustensoofi


February 17, 1903

Dear Sir,

Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsay able than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. (CAN PHOTOGRAPHY EXIST IN THIS UNSAYABLE SPACE-DS)

With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, “My Soul.” There, some thing of your own is trying to become word and melody. And in the lovely poem “To Leopardi” a kind of kinship with that great, solitary figure does perhaps appear. Nevertheless, the poems are not yet anything in themselves, not yet any thing independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them managed to make clear to me various faults that I felt in reading your verses, though I am not able to name them specifically.

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.

What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.

It was a pleasure for me to find in your letter the name of Professor Horacek; I have great reverence for that kind, learned man, and a gratitude that has lasted through the years. Will you please tell him how I feel; it is very good of him to still think of me, and I appreciate it.

The poem that you entrusted me with, I am sending back to you. And I thank you once more for your questions and sincere trust, of which, by answering as honestly as I can, I have tried to make myself a little worthier than I, as a stranger, really am.

Yours very truly,

Rainer Maria Rilke

RILKE- Letter no 1 (with comments)

Photo Fiction

You know, I really dont care how a photograph was made, whether by construction, or by suggestion or by intervention or even by photoshop. I am interested in what a photograph can do, can it transcend its inherent ‘factness’ , can it say the unsayable?

I  don’t understand what the fuss is about Steve McCurry’s photos. By removing a lamp-post or adding one, the meaning of his images does not change.  It’s not as though they somehow become more contemplative . They are magazine photos meant to grab your attention – and so they remain as they were- exotic India images. In fact, I doubt whether he would himself have wanted to make those changes, for they hardly alter his image anyway. Perhaps they were done by an eager lab assistant, or someone showing him what Photoshop could do and then just remained on the file. His gaze was the classic National Geographic gaze, the india of Taj Mahals and Steam trains, of women in dust storms all perfectly aligned, of young boys with painted faces, India reduced to blobs of highly saturated color. The viewer is the fool if they take this to be any kind of reality, other than the photographers. Which is really the point of photographing, you present your version of reality. Steve Mc Curry presented his vision, with the means he saw fit, from his point of view.

Photography is fiction in the guise of Non fiction and we all know the allure and dangers of that combination.

.At its very core Photography is a lie, you make an image to hold onto something, like a note to yourself, a memory of a place or an emotion etc etc but that thing you want to hold onto, has gone, is past. So deception is at the very heart of photography, and the first victim of that deception is the photographer herself, for presuming to have captured that which is gone……its a continuous Go Away Closer.

Now everyone with a mobile phone has access to this world of language and ofcourse it is wonderful that photography is now truly democratised. But, I also see great danger there. While we all celebrating that we have one common visual language in photography, beyond literacy and beyond geography, photography is also so open to miscommunication, as it relies not just on the photographer’s interpretation, but equally on the viewer’s.

I am truly sorry for Steve McCurry, but it could be his big gift to the photo world in forcing us to see how photography might tell lies. Photographers always knew this without saying so in so many words, just that now it’s in the mainstream.?

For me, photography is most magical when it says the unsayable, when it goes where there is no vocabulary.

The portrait I made of you, or more likely of your mother, is not really a portrait of her. It’s a portrait of how she responded to me. So, in a sense, it is as much my portrait. But because you recognise her features, you believe it’s entirely her photo.

Photography uses the real information to build its constructed narrative. You trust it because you recognise the specific elements, but that is where the “truth” of the image ends. If there is any truth, it’s in the fact that that it was the photographer’s truth, at that particular time, in those particular inner and outer circumstances. And we think that is “evidence” enough.

The lie starts with where you place the frame, what you include and what you leave out. Some would say this is the skill of photographers, to edit out from the world what they do not want to show to the viewer. I call this making ‘one’s own voice’ – precisely with what one chooses to leave out of the frame. I would even push further what Roland Barthes says about the punctum, and say that the punctum is not in the frame but outside it. When so much depends on where you place the frame, what truth can the photograph offer?

Then there is the next level of ‘deception’, if you like, where you can turn day into night and add clouds to a clear sky, all in the darkroom of the past. You decide what you darken, and where you highlight. And what you crop. As photographers have always known, photographs were “made” in the darkroom. Now Photoshop has replaced the darkroom.

The third level of deception is just by virtue of your presence as the photographer. That changes the situation because somehow people behave differently when there is a camera around. We see this again and again in conflict situations like wars, riots and even natural disasters.

I wonder which photojournalist will tell us about how their arriving on the scene of violence actually created more violence, the strikers need their images to go out. The photojournalist is complicit in this aspect. So whose truth are we talking about?

Once we accept that photography’s truth is just the photographer’s truth, and accept that the photographer is a storyteller, then why would we object to how best he can tell his story? There is the manipulation of the image, and there is also the constructed image, where you have missed the scene of crime and “recreated” it. Photographic history has many examples of this, including Felice Beato possibly digging out people’s bones to scatter them for a a photo he made six months after a massacre, to give us the image we all know so well of the mutiny in Lucknow.?

At the very beginning of photography, there is a photograph, by Hippolyte Bayard of his own fake suicide in response to Louis Daguerre getting all the glory and wealth for the invention of the photographic process.

Robert Doisneau confessed in 1993 that he used paid models to make the 1950 photograph of the kissing couple, one of the world’s most famous images.

So, if the photographer is a storyteller, he must use whatever means he finds suitable to best tell the story he wants you to hear. What is the problem there? As long as you understand that the only “reality” is the photographer’s. It is in this “fiction’ of photography that its magical power lies, otherwise one may as well be a photocopy machine. When photography says the unsayable, goes where there are no words.

PS- Time flies, Photography lies and there in lies the magic.



Photo Fiction