Last year I attended an exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Under the enticing title of "Windows," paintings from artists including Matisse, Rothko, Magritte, and others entranced visitors with the symbolic and metaphorical meanings of windows in the arts. In painting after painting, windows appeared in many different ways, unveiling a myriad of connotations: mystery or transparency, freedom or reclusion, joy or sadness, loneliness or openness, order or chaos.
Walking around the museum, I couldn’t avoid making connections with the world of photography and how this same concept of the window has always haunted the expectations of our craft as a valuable medium of artistic expression.
Photography's introduction to society was presented as a technological feat able to reproduce reality with a degree of exactitude never seen before. Photography offered itself as the perfect tool to document the world, transferring it to a flat bi-dimensional form of media for sharing with others. It didn’t take long before it was adopted by the pioneers of landscape photography who roamed the western USA with mules loaded with heavy cameras and glass plates in search of capturing accurate views of "new" landscapes. In 1835, William Fox Talbot created the first negative ever produced, "A latticed window in Lacock Abbey, England," without realizing that the photograph portrayed how this new invention would be considered from that moment on: a window to reality. Indeed, was photography not a virtual frame of a small piece of the universe carefully chosen by the photographer? With photography representing the perfect literal tool, so came the end of painting as a medium to portray reality, helping it evolve into a more figurative way of interpreting the world. From that moment on, photography ruled in the name of reality and painting continued its journey in the name of art.
The concept of the window has always haunted the expectations of our craft as a valuable medium of artistic expression.
In 1960, the head of the photography department of the MoMa in New York, John Szarkowski, inaugurated the Windows and Mirrors exhibition. According to Szarkowski, two different forms of interpretation were associated with photographs: as mirrors, they were defined as "romantic expressions of the photographer's sensibility as it projected itself on the things and sights of this world;" those conceived as windows would "explore the exterior world in all its presence and reality." Even if all photographers included in the exhibition were in "pursuit of beauty, and that format integrity that pays homage to the dream of a meaningful life," a clear distinction in their objectives had been made by Szarkowski, and with it, a strong affirmation of the possibility of using photography as a perfectly plausible medium of personal artistic expression. Not a single photograph hung from the walls of any art gallery in New York at the time of the exhibition.
I no longer desire to create photographs full of detail which show everything and leave little room for the imagination—photographs which merely depict a beautiful rendition of a place.
Half a century later, I'm writing these lines as a fine art photographer. As Szarkowski said, I've always been focused on experiencing the dream of a meaningful life using a camera. However, my initial motivations for using photography to dissect a piece of the universe have increasingly evolved into something different and more personal. Today, in this modern world of technology, ultra high-resolution cameras, and HDR, I'm no longer particularly interested in creating windows through which the viewer can observe technically perfect renditions of reality. I no longer desire to create photographs full of detail which show everything and leave little room for the imagination—photographs which merely depict a beautiful rendition of a place. What I want is to create photographs where the viewer can peer into my soul to reveal the dreams, fears, and emotions that accompany me through life.
Rafael Rojas (Master Hasselblad 2014) is a fine art photographer who strives to encapsulate concept, emotion, and spirituality in his work. His work frequently focuses on concepts like time, decay, and renewal, the interaction between humans and nature and its consequence in the natural balance, the raw latent energy found in the landscape, and the ephemeral qualities of existence. See more of Rafael’s work on his website.