Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Maker is the Message

by Drew Martin

In Marshall McLuhan's 1964 groundbreaking book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he chants "The Medium Is The Message." This means the medium (film, television, photography, book, graphic novel, magazine...) is fused to the message and influences how the message is perceived which, McLuhan suggests, has a profound effect on the receiver of information. This proposition ignores the most important factor in the loaded message: the choice of medium in the mind of its manipulator.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that success is attained through a web of situational advantages and an amassing of time with the tools of one's craft, whether that is one's voice, hockey stick or a computer. When a child picks up a trumpet, camera or tennis racket, there is an inherent set of physical rules and psychological possibilities in each choice. From the very first interaction, the user and the utensil are married and influence each other: until death do they part.

A young photographer, for example, needs to learn not only about how to see things a certain way but also how to control a device, which in turn controls the environment: light, perspective, depth, color and contrast. The photographer, from a very early age, learns to manipulate visual images and understands what she sees is very different than what she captures and how and what she presents in a gallery, newspaper, magazine or website. There is, however, another element that becomes very important and is one that we often overlook. A photographer, in most cases, cannot operate as a shut-in, locked in her room, as might a writer or painter because photography is not an entirely cerebral experience. The very nature of a photographer is that of the hunter and or gatherer. She needs to roam and this movement affects the work in more ways than we can imagine because in the far flung travels there will either be a search for the exotic, or the complete opposite, a sentimental reflection.

So while the message of photography may be affected by the devices and media of photography, the content is also saturated with the maker's psychology and philosophy. It is not enough to approach a book, photograph, movie, cartoon, sculpture or a blog (for that matter) with McLuhan prompting us to consider the medium. We must look into the eyes of the maker and see what he or she is imposing on the content and the medium. This personality and vision is, after all, what we are most interested in when we look at a Picasso, a Gauguin or a Newton.

I inserted a picture here I found on the Internet. I chose it because the familiarity and intimacy of the subject matter overrides everything else. When we see the orangutans we do not think that we are in Borneo or Sumatra, or even a zoo in Germany. We, like the photographer, simply see a wheelbarrow full of eight baby orangutans and how cute they are and how they remind us of our own children or cute children we know, or perhaps even of our own youth.