In the 6th season of Star Trek TNG there is an episode called “Schisms” in which Data delivers a poetry reading. While he recites an ode to his cat, Spot, listeners squirm in their seats.* Data has enough insight to recognize that his poetry makes people feel awkward, but not enough insight to understand why. After the poetry reading is over, Data coaxes Geordi La Forge to explain things to him. Data understands all the formal properties of a poem—metre, rhyme, stanzas, specific formats like sonnets and odes—but he hasn’t the slightest idea what a poem is for or what effect it’s supposed have on a listener. His intelligence is like the intelligence of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome—formal intelligence without emotional grounding.
I think a lot of photography (including a lot of my own) is the sort of photography Data might make if he ever decided to wander through the Enterprise with a Nikon D810 or a Canon 5DS slung around his neck. He would have a grasp of all the formal properties that contribute to a good photograph. He’d know all the “rules” about focus, depth of field, white balance, saturation and composition. And he’d have instant access to all the great photos shot by masters of the discipline. All of the hardware, rules, and historical knowledge would allow him to make technically correct images. But so what? Without more, those images would be the visual equivalent of his Ode To Spot.
In an age when it’s increasingly easy to make technically “perfect” images, it’s correspondingly easy to be complacent about whether or not those images do what images are supposed to do. Do our images merely allay anxieties around formal requirements? Or do they satisfy deeper needs? While the two are not mutually exclusive, there are many photographs that move us deeply even though they are deeply “flawed”. I think it would be an accomplishment to make even one such photograph.
*Felis Cattus, is your taxonomic nomenclature,
an endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature?
Your visual, olfactory and auditory senses
contribute to your hunting skills, and natural defenses.
I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
a singular development of cat communications
that obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
for a rhythmic stroking of your fur, to demonstrate affection.
A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
you would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aide in locomotion,
it often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.
O Spot, the complex levels of behaviour you display
connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.