Absence and Presence in Photography

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Lets start with a wonderful quote from Ansel Adams, who states that even in an image visibly devoid of human beings “…there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”. 

The presence is essentially created by the very existence of the photograph, and in the time and effort taken by the photographer to share that image with others, as well as the time the viewer takes to observe it.

We can assume that Adams feels there is no such thing as absence and wonder whether this has more to do with his feeling connected with the taking of the photograph, and the journey to the remote locations which he photographed.

In many ways, absence and presence can hardly be separated, as one fills the void of the other. In images devoid of a physical presence, we instead start to focus on observing human presence in other ways, like the cast galleries and spaces in the V & A or the mechanics of a clear light bulb, both were designed and created by man.

If you look at Candida Höfer’s empty halls, and silent lobbies, amongst many other things they speak of the way we design buildings to impress, to look good, and show power and wealth, and yet on the whole they are used for only 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. These spaces have to be functional, but they are expected to be beyond functional, they are often art in their own right. This sense of presence pervades through our everyday lives, we subconsciously read into the life and history of objects and spaces.

We all know it is unfair to presume something about a person we see, but never meet – based on nothing more than their physical appearance, but there is a part of the brain that falls into the trap – we cannot help ourselves. It goes back to the way we learn, our brains are pre-wired to make assumptions instantaneously on visual stimulus, to learn by experience, and then apply that to new situations.

By Chris Neill-Griffin 

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