Are there differences in the way practitioners of art and those of medicine see the world? How we are trained really does influence what we look for, and in turn, what we see around us. Geoffrey Ansel Agrons, a radiologist who is also a black and white photographer and a member of InLiquid, has this view about the medical perspective: “As a diagnostic radiologist, I spent my workdays interpreting ‘photographs’ of the human interior. Each study was approached as a puzzle with a potential solution, and each analysis was a quest for certainty.” As a fellow physician, I know that the practice of medicine is all about logic, evidence-based algorithms, statistical findings, laboratory results, imaging, physical examinations, to name just a few. We look in order to arrive at an answer. The emotions evoked by looking take a distant backseat to obtaining that holy grail, the answer. No wonder emotions are generally shunned; it’s no secret that the “answer,” or diagnosis, is needed in order to save lives. While there is of course some “art” to the practice of medicine, as exemplified by intuition and establishment of a trusting doctor-patient relationship, medicine is mostly a left-brain function. Uncertainty, haziness, dreaminess, imagination, excessive emotion, and blurry boundaries between one set of concepts and another are antithetical to the rationality and rigid thought required to make a diagnosis and provide evidence-based treatments. We leave the true creativity to artists.
And yet, medical training, with its hyper focus on rationality and logic sometimes forces us to gravitate to the spiritual and imaginative. It can ironically make us uniquely attuned to those unanswerable questions, to concepts that are intangible and based solely on sensation and spirit, rather than fact. As Agron adds: “I grew interested in a different relationship with photography, one that separated an immediate emotional response from vigilant interpretation…I found respite in feeling rather than thinking.” Experiencing the world through emotion can be very freeing after a lifetime of logic and analytical thought. Perhaps this attraction to transcendence, to creative expression and emotional resonance, is made all the more powerful by physicians’ front row seats to suffering, pain, loss, and death. Of course, doctors aren’t the only ones dealing with pain and suffering, but we are exposed to it daily through our patients. We can choose to address suffering solely through logic (that is, finding the “answer” and thereby provide solace through medical intervention) with a sprinkling of compassion, but we can also dip a toe into the spiritual realm. Capturing beauty and creativity alongside suffering brings them in stark relief of each other. There is a shallow gorge between them, one which can be traversed with appropriate crampons, ropes and most of all mental fortitude. It’s almost like traveling in indeterminate spaces, between one world and another, between left brain and right brain functions, between thinking and feeling. It’s akin to exploring transitional, liminal spaces, that space between the familiar and the unknown, or even between concepts, or between the thought processes of art and medicine.
Agron’s stunning black and white photographs, so different from radiology images which require studied scrutiny to arrive at a medical conclusion, elicit a different type of looking. These scenes are captured through a right-brained visual field and camera lens. As such, they call on us to look with a wide-open mind, suspending logic and rationality. The photos seem to capture a spiritual, ethereal world, one which may exist in a dream. Prologue conveys partially submerged piers against a swath of pristine water behind it. It portrays the meandering border between man-made structures and the expanse of the ocean, as if questioning whether we can turn back once we’ve broached the wilderness. The piers are half submerged, as if they’ve weathered many storms, yet still make their mark in the water. It seems to pose the question of whether that wilderness will ever be truly wild again. As such, it seems to elicit a sense of loss, of sadness. Those piers no longer serve a purpose yet still mar and deface the landscape, like some kind of oil-based graffiti sprayed on the surface of the water.
Exiled from Our Past shows a silken, ethereal curtain or ribbon demarcating a dense forest, conveying a dreamy, otherworldly landscape. It’s as if we are told we don’t belong there, we cannot get in. It speaks to being closed off from spirit and nature. It again depicts a boundary between human interference and the wild, or perhaps given its title, between past and future. It captures the feeling of exclusion, of observing beauty from a distance, of nature becoming somehow untouchable, as if we are standing in that transitional zone between logical thought and the free spirit of the natural world. Or perhaps we are trapped between art and medicine, between thinking and emotion; we are in that liminal space, between what we know and what is unknown, between our past and the unknown future. On the other hand, maybe it’s not exactly being trapped between these two divergent worlds that’s at issue but it’s about having the uncommon ability to creatively embrace both worlds. And Agrons’ thought provoking photographs certainly show us that thinking and feeling, or logic and emotion, can peacefully coexist; it’s just a matter of how we choose to look.
Geoffrey Ansel Agrons is a Philadelphia based artist who graduated from the Richard Stockton State College in Pomona, New Jersey and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey Medical School in Newark, New Jersey. His photographs have been exhibited in multiple venues throughout the country as well as Tokyo since 2008, and have been included in several publications. His work is in the permanent collection at The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado and The Witcliff Collections at Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.