But as correct as I think Laing is (on both points), I would venture to be even more specific and say that if love belongs to the poet, and fear to the novelist, then loneliness belongs to the photographer. To be a photographer is to willingly enter the world of the lonely, because it is an artistic exercise in invisibility. In the course of its relatively brief history, photography (and, by extension, those who take photographs) has been accused repeatedly of constituting an act of predation, as if the street is a savannah and the person with a camera a large cat, silent and hungry, ready to sprint after its next meal. In reality, though, the person with the camera is not hiding but receding. She is willfully removing herself from the slipstream of life; she is making herself into a constant witness, someone who lives to see the lives of others, not to be seen herself. Writing is often assumed to be the loneliest profession, but solitude should not be confused for loneliness: one is a condition we choose, the other is a condition that is forced upon us. A writer creates a world, and she is the ruler of it; the photographer moves through the world, our world, hoping for anonymity, hoping she is able to humble herself enough to see and record what the rest of us—in our noisy perambulations, in our requests to be heard—are too present to our own selves to ever see. To practice this art requires first a commitment to self-erasure.
It is also why so many great photographs concern loneliness. The lens may distance the photographer from the rest of humanity, but with that distance comes an enhanced ability to see what is overlooked and underloved, whether it is the piebald of shadows decorating the side of a house, or the greased-glass door of a motel (the melancholy iconography of the American road—the motels, the slumping wooden houses, the elm half-choked to death by kudzu, the sun-cracked stucco building—is to modern photography what a wheel of cheese and a tumble of grapes were to Renaissance painting), or, most powerfully, the lone human being.
The annals of photography contain many extraordinary portraits, but the ones we linger on longest achieve something exceptional: they suggest that in the microsecond it takes for the shutter to blink, some communion has been found, that an unseen life has become a seen one, that attention has been paid, that an act of witness has been accomplished. They remind us how much we want to be seen, and also how infrequently we practice the skill of seeing others. But if there is a cure for the invisibility of loneliness, it is this. It is why, depending on who you are, that click of the camera’s shutter is a sound that evokes either anxiety or relief. Click: I see you. Click: I see you. Click: I see you. You are not alone.
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