Last night I was watching a recording of a lecture by Doug Wilson that was presented during the Desiring God 2013 National Conference. In his presentation on C. S. Lewis (actually the entire conference had Lewis as a focus), Wilson made the case that creative endeavors, specifically story writing, are an act of obedience to the Bible’s instruction to “be imitators of God”. Does it make sense to say that, in photography, we can imitate the act of creation, the way God creates? Over and again I’ve heard people say, “God created everything out of nothing.” In fact, it would be more accurate to say that God created everything out of Himself…which is far different from nothing.
With photography, probably more so than with any other creative medium, we use a record of something (light) that was present at a certain place and a certain time as the foundation of the finished product. The idea of using photography to imitate God’s creation of the entire universe out of His own will and power is fantastically absurd. On the other hand, maybe the absurdity is inherent in all human “creative” acts and it’s only more obvious in photography than it is in writing. Then the questions remain. What if we are supposed to attempt the impossible feat of imitating real creation (not just rearranging or manipulation)? And if we are, what in the world would that look like?
Further into the lecture, Doug Wilson suggests that “depth” is a key characteristic in writing that “imitates rightly”. Depth is not to be found in the superficial acts of assigning unusual names, putting wings on a horse, or letting animals talk. Instead, the best imitation of creation requires a deliberate and well planned structure that weaves plots and characters and settings together in such a way that if there were a winged horse, it would feel both logical and meaningful. For example, we do have much to learn from animals, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could come by that understanding by having them speak to us plainly?
In the realm of photography, I feel like this idea of “depth” or coherence might best be described by a statement I first heard from Alain Briot, a photographer that I have long admired for various reasons. In describing his approach to photography, he says that he doesn’t much care whether his images are faithful to reality so long as they maintain believability. The truth may be that you are standing right next to a very prominent (necessary) guardrail on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but you position your camera so that you take advantage of every possible inch of foreground real estate without including the railing. The resulting image is believable, and it departs from reality for an express and valuable purpose, namely to convey a vastness in the Grand Canyon that is undiminished by human endeavors.
Another literary example of quality imitation is a round or well developed character. These are the fictional entities that, as you read their story, feel more real than a lot of the people you see every day. I think a photographer can devote the same kind of careful exposition to the prominent subjects in her or his images. In order to share a subject in a way that resonates with viewers, a photographer must have a rich understanding of that subject combined with a brimming appreciation. Additionally, just like a character in a story never stands in isolation, the portrayal of a photographic subject must contribute to a greater message in the same way that a character lives within the story.
All of a photographer’s images need not tell the same story, but personally I find myself drawn to sharing a message about what might be hoped for. I don’t only want my photographs to be a window into the world at it’s very best, whatever that even means. I really want them to be a call to a place where our appreciation of the world is at its very greatest, where each moment in the midst of creation gives rise to shouted or whispered superlatives.
So we can’t really even imagine a world very unlike the one we experience here on Earth, and we certainly can’t bring any such world into a physical existence. We can’t comprehend eternity or omniscience or omnipotence, but that doesn’t me we shouldn’t try. I will continue to pursue acts of imitation creation, my sub-creation, and I will do it for the same goal that is intended for all creation, to bring glory to God. I will continue to derive my greatest joy and attempt to increase the joy of those around me by knowing God through what he has made, the universe throughout all history. And if my photos inspire one person to say, “God is good,” I will count myself as doubly blessed.