It All Turns on Affection is the title of Wendell Berry's 2012 Jefferson Lecture for the Humanities. It's an essay that's lingered in the back of my mind for some time now.
I first stumbled on It All Turns on Affection some years ago during a spell of research about place, landscape and environmental issues - which is usually at the crux of my inquiry as a photographer. These are breathtakingly sprawling topics that I can never seem to fully grasp and that even the best writers will never fully explain. These topics are much like the photograph itself - the fundamentally inexplicable nature of them is why words could never be a satisfactory replacement.
The thesis of It All Turns on Affection divides historical Americans into two groups that he calls "Boomers" (not the generation) and "Stickers." What ultimately separates these people is their outlook and attitude towards a physical place...you could say the landscape. Berry essentially approves of the Stickers and proposes that many social dilemmas would be solved if people developed a deeper, more appreciative relationship with their environment. While I dislike bifurcations such as this because they map a clean theory onto a messy world, I find his observation useful enough with no shortage of relatable, specific and concrete examples to match his hypothesis.
(The fascinating thing about a proposition like this is that it obliterates maybe the most evident bifurcation in current discourse - our traditional American political boundaries. Instead of a political affiliation I see this divide as having parallels with the reconfigured 'attractors' that philosopher Bruno Latour names "Out-of-This-World" and "The Terrestrial.")
In this instance Berry's essay was able to put into words some ideas that I'd been struggling to clarify - especially while living a life that would be considered much more akin to the Boomer (again, not the generation) and feeling spiritually and locationally unmoored. It took me years to realize, but I find it difficult to make photographs of places that I don't feel some sort of connection to. This is quite different from a place I might consider beautiful, striking or any other descriptor that might cause someone to want to photograph. To the contrary, I often feel compelled to photograph a landscape that strikes me as unsettling, troubled or any other such connotations if I feel I have some understanding of it, or some connection to it personally.
I've certainly not come close to exploring all of his works, but I am not sure there are any writers out there that evoke such a strong feeling of ambivalence from me. Sometimes, I view him as hopelessly saccharine, romantic or frustratingly paradoxical. I am a bit reluctant to get on board when he speaks admirably of tobacco farming (in part because of those who he is close to), while vigorously critiquing the tobacco industry, for example. He elegantly tries to wrestle out of a hypocritical standpoint by weighing environmental impacts, addressing communal aspect of the harvest etc. but it can still read as a traditionalist defending a tradition because it's a tradition.
Then there is something essential in his work that I want to relate to more than perhaps I do (I did, after all, include a passage of his in my wife's and my wedding vows). Therein lies a tension - there is the world Berry describes and the values he espouses - which are perhaps more aligned with the world I want to inhabit - versus the world I generally perceive. But perception means a lot, and I've found reading and writing to be in the running for the strongest ways to alter my own perception of the world, if only through the act of careful study and reconsideration of what is already readily observable.
Berry has previously been labeled as having "radically conservative views (in the good senses of both words)" in 1993 - when those words together - to many at least - meant something quite different than what it would likely evoke in 2021. But what that means to me is that the sense of ambivalence he evokes is rooted in my wanting to make photographs and art from a place of love and appreciation - an affection as he calls it - all while grappling with what implications that may have spun out into the world beyond whatever feels like a home. Implications, I might add, that I believe we ignore at the peril of the global community.
Many photographers respond visually (as would make sense) to what is in front of them - and it's mostly that simple. I think this is a completely justified way of working, but it doesn't work for me. My visual response is secondary to my emotional response to a place, and because of this I am typically uninterested in making an image of something incredible in a place that is too new to me to have more than a surface level impression of.
Let's take the example of a brilliant sunset over Highway 1 in California, overlooking the Pacific, augmented by the dramatic and striking cliffs of Big Sur. To begin with, I would likely rather just witness this sunset with my own eyes and be present to truly appreciate it - at most making a snapshot for purposes of augmenting my memory. For another, there's very likely another photograph of said thing already existing that is better, by someone who did have that emotional response I speak of - someone who perhaps has driven this road a thousand times and is able to understand why this sunset is strikingly unique and knows just how to frame it to show this. It's not really my picture to make, then. By this I don't mean I shouldn't be allowed to - it just means that I don't see it as something I understand enough to try and visually reproduce it (to the extent that it even could be reproduced, we will ignore the failures inherent in the photographic medium writ large for the moment). Take a similar situation, however, on the shores of Western Michigan, an admittedly much more subdued landscape - but still striking in its own right - that I have come to know and appreciate as a life giving place in the context of my family. That emotional response I need to make a picture is something I take to mean Berry's version of affection. For me, making a photograph (even a pedestrian one) turns on Affection.
With these writings I hope to come closer to articulating a personal philosophy of not just making photographs - but of seeing the world more generally - including outside of the act of photography. This philosophy, like a landscape or a photograph, couldn't ever be fully explained. I will constantly challenge my own intuitions and impetuses. If I am fortunate enough to remain persistent in this effort I will, eventually, inevitably contradict myself as well - but at this point I've come to the conclusion that I simply feel a bit better about the process of working if I try to figure out what is behind it through an articulated paragraph or two (or seven...).
In the past I've often admired photographers who refuse to put words to their images - there is much to be gained by keeping quiet, after all. If you're lucky enough to have viewers of your work, then without words the space for their projection into it is wide open. Your mystique is intact, and your motivations and lines of inquiry could be much more brilliant in the eyes of the flummoxed observers than they actually are. But it is entirely possible to retain all of these potential benefits even if you're someone who has left a trail of literate thoughts behind you, revealing and spoiling all of your lines of inquiry, exposing you a bit more accurately for whatever it is you've always been. If you're an artist who is lucky enough to have viewers of your work, you're even luckier if someone decides to spend the time with any sort of text that may go with it. Given this (nearly) invisible corner of the internet, I'm not too worried here.
Then of course the opposite is possible too. One might make entirely unremarkable artwork that comes to life when paired with the right words. I'm not sure that's what I'm after here, but it's one reason that the book is still my favorite way to look at photography. The possibility exists that both words and images grow exponentially in meaning and significance when paired with care.
It might seem a bit controversial as the photograph has come under fire for all sorts of reasons as of late, but I still believe the act of photographing is an affirmative one. From behind a camera I see this place, this person, this object - to have some significance. It is an attempt at understanding something, which doesn't happen without some love directed somewhere, even if it's not for the subject in the frame. It is an attempt at keeping something I know is impossibly slipping by from the very second I separate my gaze from what in front of me to what is in a viewfinder. To subsequently write in conjunction with the image is an extension of this pursuit - maybe we can understand just a little bit more, or love a little bit more, or freeze time for just a little longer.