John Gossage on metaphor and directness

I enjoyed this conversation with John Gossage on the ever-excellent Magic Hour podcast (recorded back in 2016). He talks about representation in photography in two different ways that might seem contradictory, or at least pull apart in an interesting tension. The episode opens with this line from Gossage, (which we don’t hear in context in the rest of the edit):

Metaphor actually exists in the world. Photography has more of a claim to be able to produce that kind of function than virtually anything else. It seems like there’s no author, if done correctly.

But he’s renowned for the directness in his work, which perhaps we can trace back in part to his education as a school-skipping 14 year old under Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research in New York. He talks about that experience from about 4 minutes in:

One thing that really affected me: this guy had gone out and photographed trees at night with rain on them with a glistening effect – one of those cheesy photo effects. And she said “If you want to photograph a tree, you don’t photograph the effect on the tree, but the tree itself.” That changed everything for me, all of a sudden, it’s not about these pretentious photo effects, if you actually want to make a photo of something, it’s because you want to make a photo of it.

Untitled, from the series The Pond, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1985, John Gossage

We often contrast a documentary with a directorial approach. One emphasises a direct representation of what we find in the world, the other privileges the author. But I’ve never heard someone claim that the former enables a metaphorical power.

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