A few months ago I bought a copy of Tod Papageorge's book, Core Curriculum, in which he reviews the work of Aget, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, his friend, Garry Winogrand, and several other photographers. It's a book worth reading.
And one of the things Tod mentions in his introduction is how much photography resembles poetry. Tod wasn't guessing. He was into poetry as well as photography from an early age. His statement hit me because it's something I've always believed and always pointed out on the occasions when I've lectured about photography. That belief isn't something I'm merely surmising. I saw two of my early poems published in a "little magazine" when I was nineteen and a student at University of Michigan. I wrote poetry for decades after that and saw enough of it published to keep my enthusiasm high. I still write poetry on occasion.
There are obvious parallels, not the least of which is the fact that both poetry and photography appear easy, but when you try you find that it takes a great deal of work and a great deal of concentration to do either one well, and that no matter how hard you try or how much experience you gain, you produce a lot more failures than successes.
But to me the most important parallel is something Archibald MacLeish pointed out in his book: Poetry and Experience. First of all, a good poem must contain images that can be grasped by the reader. Yet the significance within a poem isn't contained in the specific images, but in the interstices between the images. If you think you can put the real significance of a poem into words, then either the poem is doggerel or you've misunderstood its meaning. MacLeish used an old English verse to make his point:
O westron wind when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
And MacLeish comments:
"Here the two little scenes of wind and weather and love and bed are left side by side to mean if they can. And they do mean. The poem is not a poem about the one or the other. It is not a poem about weather. And neither is it a poem about making love. The emotion it holds is held between these two statements in the place where love and time cross each other. Here, as in those old Chinese poems, the emotion, somehow contained in the poem, is an emotion which words cannot come at directly — which no words as words can describe. How can you “describe” in words the poignancy of the recognition of the obstacle of time — its recognition not on the clock face or among the stars but on the nerves of the body and in the blood itself? But if you cannot “describe” it in words how then can words contain it? Well, how do they contain it here? By not speaking of it. By not speaking of it at all. By speaking of something else, something off at the one side and the other as the man at the helm of a ship looks off and above to starboard and larboard to see the channel marker before him in the dark. By speaking of two things which, like parentheses, can include between them what neither of them says. (emphasis added) By leaving a space between one sensed image and another where what cannot be said can be — this sensuous, this bodily knowledge of the defeat of love by time — this When? When? Ah when? — When will the wind go west and the spring rain come to bring her back to me and me to her?"
And isn't it true that a good photograph, or any visual art, conveys its meaning in what we might call the interstices between images rather than in the denotations of the images themselves? A minute ago on User Critiques I made a comment about Martin Parr in Seamus Finn's "Ferrari Fan's Siesta" thread. I think Martin's photography is a clear example of this. The real meaning in Martin's photographs of English vacationers isn't conveyed directly by the images of corpulent people in bathing suits. The real meaning is something you can't put into words -- something that lies between the images.
Finally, the reason we say that art is in the eye of the beholder is that your ability to grasp the significance of a poem, a photograph, a painting, depends on your background and your personality. If you’ve been taught that the only real things in creation are the things you can deal with through science and cognition, you’re liable either to ignore or to be frightened by a poem that speaks to your soul, and you'll understand an incredible work of art, like Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" to be three people in a restaurant.
Indeed, Oscar, there certainly is such a thing as "poetic eloquence in photography," and the two disciplines are close to each other in many ways.