Dichotomy of Photographic Control

A simple question that has been on my mind for the last couple of weeks: could one consider photography (at least some forms) to be the ultimate stoic art form?

Philosophy and photography have been alternating focal points for my attention since I finished up my MFA (a solid 10 years ago, wahoo). In particular, the connection between Stoicism’s key tenets and the practices of making photographs. I’m thinking here of the Stoic practice of focusing on what can be controlled and accepting what cannot.

Turning to Epictetus in Enchiridion:

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.

What happens to be in front of the lens is only partially up to us. True, there are those photographers (I’m thinking of Gregory Crewdson here) who are able to control almost all aspects of an image. The right lighting, the right subjects, the right post-processing. But, for the overwhelming majority of images produced, it is less a matter of controlled, precise outcomes and more a relationship of chance and intention, much like the Stoic “Dichotomy of control”.

This fluid dialog of photographic intention and control is a spell-binding focus for study in itself. On my desk at the moment I have a range of photography books from Issei Suda‘s Tokyokei to Rinko Kawauchi‘s Halo to the collection of the work of Sophie Calle, Did You See Me?. Each of these photographers is embracing this dichotomy of control in a slightly different way, each is surrendering varying degrees of control and setting the territory of what is controlled and what is up to chance. The result is a fascinating gradient ranging from tight, almost documentary narrative arc to diffuse, ephemeral, and soft soft control of where the camera is pointed and what it will document.