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" Intentions and Techniques-Some Thoughts" was originally published as the introduction to the catalog for the fourth Intentions and Techniques exhibition at Lehigh University. Intentions and Techniques is a series of exhibitions from the Lehigh University photography collection.


Michael A. Smith

When the first of the Intentions and Techniques exhibitions occurred back in 1979, I was quite intrigued by the title. I still am now, at this, the fourth so titled exhibition.

"To what extent", I asked myself, "do techniques follow from intention—and to what extent is it the other way around?" First there is intention—an artist wants to say something—and he or she finds techniques appropriate to that intention. But then, along the way, the techniques begin informing and sometimes directing the intention—so that the artist ends up working in a manner appropriate to, and on occasion even dictated by, the techniques employed.

Some examples: photographer X wants to photograph people interacting at evening events. For this, flash is needed. When the use of flash is mastered it can then become a determinant of the kind of subject which will continue to be of interest. And the kinds of in between moments that the use of flash so well reveals, perhaps at first mostly a function of the technique, become what the photographer specifically ends up looking for.

Photographer Y wants sharper photographs and begins to use a view camera. When he or she finds satisfaction in the more studied approach that a view camera encourages, the subject matter that then gets chosen becomes things which do not move. And as a consequence, the intention becomes to make still, meditative photographs.

Photographer Z finds the 35mm camera, with its lightness and ease of operation to be a joy, and finds that with practice it lends itself to making photographs in "the decisive moment." Thereafter, those become the moments that get looked for—everything else gets ignored.

As a working photographer I find it fascinating to see to what extent this occurs. The danger, the constant danger, is that when the techniques begin to determine intention, the fresh response to the world can get lost and the work can suffer. In Looking at Photographs, John Szarkowski said,

"In photography, perhaps because of the speed with which the medium itself has changed, only a very few workers have been able to maintain the vitality and plasticity of their conception for a full working lifetime. The genuinely creative period of most photographers of exceptional talent has rarely exceeded ten or fifteen years."

I think that the reason the above is true is not that the medium has changed rapidly, but is that photographers begin by being fully responsive to the world (their intention—broadly speaking) and end up by becoming involved first with photography (techniques—broadly speaking) and only then with the world. Eventually, work so determined tends to become self referential, and by not being constantly nourished by a fresh unmediated response to the world, tends to become repetitive and/or burn out.

Intentions and Techniques can also be used as a lens through which to view this collection of photographs as a whole. Lehigh University’s intention—to form a teaching collection; the technique—to have one person select the photographs for that collection.

In looking through this collection of photographs that Ricardo Viera has brought together, I was constantly struck by its freshness and aliveness. My reaction on seeing each succeeding photograph was, "And this, too!". What has been created here, for surely this Lehigh University Collection is a creation rather than just an accumulation—is a marvelous teaching collection—one in which not only the whole of the history of photography is represented—from a Fox Talbot made in 1840 down to work made just last year, but one in which many types of approaches to photography are represented. There are, of course, photographs made with a fine art intention—in all modes and styles—from straight photographs to manipulated and even painted on photographs—with everything in between. And there are fine examples of photographs made with other intentions as well—photographs made for commercial purposes and photographs made originally just to be news records.

But this is not simply a collection of one of this and one of that and, oh yes—one of those over there. No. Though there is a tremendous variety of styles and approaches, there is an unusual degree of expressiveness about this collection—a highly charged emotional quality permeates throughout and functions as the unifying characteristic. This emotional quality is not a superficial one—the collection does not shock and is not forced. This highly charged emotional quality, readily apparent when looking at the collection as a whole, is a reflection of its creator, Ricardo Viera. On meeting Viera, one immediately feels his highly charged emotional intensity. It is fascinating to observe how this curator’s personality has informed this collection—in exactly the same way that an individual artist’s personality informs his or her art.

This collection, by its variety and vitality, is an excellent teaching and study collection, a model for the type of collections that can and should be formed wherever photography is taught. Lehigh University’s intention—to build this collection—has been well served by the technique employed—the vesting in one person the autonomy to build it. It is to the University’s credit that they are willing to do this in an age characterized by its bureaucratic and group decision making procedures. This technique insures that the Lehigh University Collection of Photographs will be unique and very special. One can only hope that it will continue to grow.

© 1987 Michael A. Smith

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