Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why Make Photographs?

I can understand why people photograph - messing about with cameras is fun, it often gets you outdoors, it's an icebreaker to talk to people you might not meet otherwise, it's challenging and you get to buy neat gadgets. But that doesn't explain the need to make images. If we go back to before the internet, the average photographer never shared his work with anyone. Few if any prints were mounted on the wall - given the hassles of dry mounting and matte cutting, prints were difficult to make so the concept of sharing prints was largely foreign, giving a photograph as a gift wasn't generally thought of, and few photographers had their images pinned to their office walls to look at on a regular basis. No, the images tended to be stored in printing paper boxes (if even that), to be looked at somewhere between seldom and never. All this was done with considerable expense in time and materials and for what?

Clearly it wasn't for fame - in the days of the wet darkroom, few serious amateur photographers even considered submitting their work - there was one around to compare yourself to and most photographers just assumed no one would be interested. Even today, there are photographers discovered who have quietly been working on one or more projects for 30 years, amassing an impressive and important body of work without a soul knowing till some lucky fluke comes along.

You'd think that if it were for the love of the fine image, photographers would have their work pasted up everywhere, and if not their own work, then images from photo magazines - but few did.

this suggests that while many of us share our work these days, that isn't fundamental to being a photographer.

So why photograph? Some photographers spend their entire lives testing - for what I don't know since they never seem to move beyond testing. I read today of someone testing printing techniques for the new Sigma DP-1 - it isn't even out yet - give me break! Others say they photograph because they have to - but how helpful is that kind of comment? What is this, some little voice inside that says, before you are allowed to have lunch, you must take a photograph? I don't think so - these photographers can go weeks or even months between photographic sessions - some addiction that is.

More than a few photographers photograph in a way that reminds one of the big game hunters of the past - see what I bagged. I hiked further, higher, carried a heavier pack, suffered for my art and see what I got that you can't get - so there! They may want to impress but often it's the thrill of the chase that satisfies, the final image simply being a reminder of the conquest.

A few photographers are more specific, they say they feel the need to create. Now, in 30 seconds, your 3 year old can slap paint onto your clean living room wall (and carpet) so there must be more to creation than that - I think of creation a little bit like stategy in a game - whether it's chess or football. Gee, if I try this, then that, and what about the other? Instead of the conquest being the perfect weather/sun/light our successes often come when we find things that others either don't see or don't consider photogenic, then turn round and work with it to record and present it in a way that is unique, informative, pretty, interesting, curious, strange or whatever.

Some days we feel this need more than others. At times it can be satisfied by working on an image taken, but others nothing but going out hunting, plotting and scheming will satisfy the itch, rather like one of those serial murderers you read about in novels. Hopefully there's no transfer of itches.

In the end, does it really matter why we photograph? Well, I think it does. Knowing yourself better helps you scratch the itch more effectively. For the person who has to hike miles and find unique weather and lie in wet grass for hours - popping out to the local park at noon just isn't going to cut it. It might for someone else though who wants to create and who might enjoy the challenge of being given a subject, location or situation to photograph.

It also could help you figure out what to do with your images once made. It it's truly the hunt that is important, the images simply form a record of the hunt and are of no great importance otherwise and filing them is entirely appropriate.

Some of us need a test audience and for better or worse, you're it for me. It's not so much that I need an adoring public - Yuck!, it's that you act as a sounding board for my images, my experiments, my ideas. Am I on the right track, did I go to far, did I get my point across in an image or did I in fact miss the boat entirely.

For some, only cold hard cash sales are going to validate their work - it's all about sales, even if they actually don't make a net profit from their photography, the sales are the validation of their work, and perhaps worth.

The net is full of people who want to be known for their expertise, but not for their photography. They pontificate at length, but don't have the work to back it up. They often get really defensive when challenged - but given that they are talkers and not photographers, perhaps it's best if we put them aside as irrelevant to the current conversation.

It doesn't matter how good a tool is if you don't use it.

Do you really understand both why you photograph and what that implies about what you do with your image making?



Gary Nylander said...

For myself, it partly personal as I reminder of places I have been or experiences in life and I like to show others how I 'see' the world.

Gary Nylander said...

So sorry....I should have proof read that....For myself, I photograph because I love to create art and its partly a reminder of the places I have been to and experiences in life . I like to show others how I 'see' the world.

Mário Nogueira said...

Well, nice question, and a tricky one. It has crossed my mind lots of times, and still no obvious answer.

Being an engineer, the techical aspects appeal a lot to me; trying with cameras, scanners, printers, software, etc, just "makes sense" and it's a nice way to spend some time. On the other hand, the emotion one gets when "hunting", when one sees that "this is it!" and later contemplates it on the wall... And finally, the pride (maybe some ego involved, i admit) of sharing with others, and receiving some praise.

I don't know, maybe a mixture of all above, maybe something else deep in my mind that keepd eluding me...

Jakub said...

For me it's catching the spirit of place in a picture.

Diane said...

I have to say, I can't quite put my finger on exactly why I enjoy photography. I started photographing, by chance, after meeting a photographer late last fall. He made a generous offer to me to be able to join him on any of his daily walks and hikes, while also offering to me, his knowlege of the camera, of looking, of lighting, of composition and of experiencing the world around me.
The camera itself, is quite intimidating for me. I'm not one that easily grasps the technical side of photography. So if it were just about the camera, I probably would have quit the next day. Some days I think, "Why am I doing this?"
I think for me, it's a way of capturing a unique moment, object or feeling that I've experience while observing my surroundings, then trying to illustrate that emotion or moment in a photograph. Then, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to convey that same emotion or moment to someone else thru that image. The things you're able to capture with a camera are endless. Being out and experiencing the world is pretty great too.

tom said...

I have been in the process of trying to write an artistic statement to go along with some prints I want to submit to a juried exhibit. I have had to ask myself this very question and an answer that I can articulate has been evasive. So far the only thing I can come up with is that I am sometimes surprised and even shocked at the difference between what the camera records and I remember. I really like your blog and have bookmarked it so I can visit often. Tom

Diane said...

I'd also like to add to my comment left previously, that I began doing photography during my recovery of a recent illness. It gave me a great outlet in which I was able to forget about many of the health worries I'd been having, and focus on the positive things that were happening around me. I found it helped to rekindle my sense of wonder and curiosity.

So on those days when I ask myself "Why am I doing this." I often answer, "Because it makes me feel good."

This is the type of question that is often difficult to sum up in one answer. The reasons often present themselves in little bits and pieces, as they bubble up to the surface.

mkinsman said...

Why we photograph can be a lifelong quest to answer. We might start out with a desire that acts as the initial drive of taking pictures. But overtime, the reasons may evolve as we review the results. For the casual photographer, it may be just capturing the moment. For those of more artistic bent, it might be driven by a desire to evoc an emotional response from the viewer. For some it might be a way of expressing an opinion of social issues or conditions, or a desire to capture an historical moment in time (Cartier-Bresson for example).
Like many other things in life, the more you do something, the greater the chances of improving your results. Study apples falling off a tree and the concept of gravity may come to mind. Maybe it's all a subconcius expression of sharing our human existence.
For me, capturing what I felt when I decided to take the picture - eliciting a response from the viewer that hopefully is similar to the memory of my reaction at the time of envisioning the image, makes pursuing worthwhile.

Bob said...

I remember a snippet of a conversation from when I was in high school (a long time ago!). Someone said the sunset looks like a painting. Someone else replied that, no, you should say the painting looks like the sunset. You can argue the point either way, but my heart was always with the first speaker.

We do creative things to reflect what the world looks like, or maybe more importantly, what it feels like to us. The writer Annie Dillard put it more eloquently that “we write to give voice to our own amazement.”

I'm not really aware of the passage of time when I'm making photographs. I'm aware of the light changing, but that's not the same thing. It's an activity that I can lose myself in, while still being acutely aware of my surroundings.

Maybe the easiest answer is that I do it because it's fun. I do a bunch of serious stuff in life. I hope I don't need a more profound answer for why I take pictures.

George Barr said...

The writer Annie Dillard put it more eloquently that “we write to give voice to our own amazement.” according to Bob - I really like that. So, we photograph to express our amazement. This nicely deals with the things we see and want to show others. It doesn't though express as well the things we create to show others - needs work.