Sunday, June 15, 2008

What Do We Really Want From Photography?

I would suggest that "why we photograph" and "what we want from photography" are not the same and that further, a study of what we want from our photography and an analysis of other peoples goals and how practical ours are given our circumstances could be very useful.

A good answer to why we photograph might be one of the following:

a) a burning need to create


b) I like messing with cameras

or more likely a bit of both, in varying ratios to suit our personalities.

An honest look at what we want from photography might include any of the following:

1) to be recognized as a craftsman or artist, anyway a skilled photographer

2) money - money to justify expensive equipment (see above - playing with toys) or to actually supplement income (in which case forget the expensive toys).

3) to have some nice photographs, to look at

4) to improve our skills, at whatever level me might be now

5) fame - which isn't necessarily the same as recognition

6) to make some really great images, whether anyone else sees them or not.

And I dare say you can add your own suggested goals either observed or experienced.

I have a portfolio case of matted silver prints, probably about 35 of them, representing some of the best work I did BD (before digital). I doubt more than a dozen people in the world have ever seen them (except one workshop). The portfolio rarely sees the light of day, even to me. I suspect that a lot of photographers were the same before digital and the internet.

This can tell us quite a lot about both drive to photograph and goals achieved. There were a lot of happy photographers before the internet, who like me seemed to get satisfaction from photography without fame, money, recognition or even the social aspects of photography. While it is tempting to suggest that nowadays the main goals are fame and fortune, in fact I suspect that the vast majority of photographers might dream of same, but realistically aim for different, more realistic goals. It's a bit like being 58 and pot bellied (not to mention any names, but there's a mirror in our hall) and wishing you had some gorgeous model, star, stud or being of ultimate desire to your taste) at your beck and call. You know damn well you're lucky to have the aging spouse you have, and if you were honest with yourself, having to keep pace with someone like the above dream would be far more trouble than 99% of us would be willing to put out.

Fame and fortune in photography are no different - they are high maintenance, demanding, rude, all consuming and downright fickle. Most of us aren't willing to put up with high and mighty gallery owners, pushy clients, deadlines, marketing, more time spent matting and framing (because we can't make a profit if we get someone else to do it) than we do photographing. We become experts at packaging and mailing rather than composing.

Most of us have jobs which provide a steady income, and which in fact allow us to buy the lovely tools we use). We have houses that need maintained, families who need attention, and probably a life style which we aren't willing to sacrifice to achieve either fame or fortune.

It's a miracle of no small proportion that I, a busy family doctor; have had as much recognition as I have. Largely it's been luck, a certain amount of nerve to put myself forth to be judged, and no small coincidence that I happen to be able to write (even if I can't spell) and to explain things fairly clearly.

The vast majority of photographers are satisfied to produce some nice images, and if every so often someone else gets to appreciate them, so much the better.

A more realistic set of wants might be the following:

i) to always be improving

ii) to have some sense of this progress and where we are. It's not so much the recognition we desire as the assurance that we are doing good work, and how else do we achieve this other than to ask someone else for their opinion?

iii) to create a select few images images which in some small way add to the medium


Nick Jungels said...

Amen to that.

I just had to do some similar soul searching. I've been in a bit of a funk and needed to change something. Part of figuring out what to change was the same basic question: What am I trying to get out of all this?

For the moment, it boiled down to enjoying the motions of photography. I really have cut my teeth on digital, but have a Pentax K1000. So, I got bought and shot my first roll(s) of film this past week.

It was a nice change. Given that I had to do much more thinking about the results prior to releasing the shutter, my overall speed dropped like a rock. But, my ratio of keepers was approximately the same, maybe a bit less. I'm pretty happy with that.

Will I keep shooting film? No and yes. Will it sustain me photographically for a while? You bet.

Perhaps I'm more the "like to mess with cameras" type than the "fine artist" type. So be it.

Now if I could only squelch that urge to get a new 40D, since I just know that my pics will look so much better with it....

Mauro said...

You are wise one. I suppose this is one of the main reasons i love to read your blog.
For the first question i would say that i am both A and B.
But it is on the second group that i am more doubtful. Problem is that a form of self gratification does not last, it did not last even in BD times (at last for me). Communication requires at least a couple of endpoints.
But on the positive side the nice thing today is that you can shape your own community, while BD (or better before Internet) you had far less choices.

Rod said...

You nailed it. It almost scares me how close this is to my (and surely others') thinking, albeit more fleshed out. Your diagnosis and prescription are dead on.

Adrian said...

Interesting question, but does it any good asking it? So far I only fell prey to hobbies where amateurs aspire to become professionals (computers/software is now paying my bills, photography and travel provide a constant outflux of money).

I wonder how your model railway friends would answer such a question? What do they really want from their uncount hours of labour and certainly significant amounts of money spent?

latoga said...

Thanks for the great post! This particular one, along with a number of others that I came across today, stirred some deep thoughts on Knowing, Accepting, Changing, and Displaying photography. Thanks for helping to be the trigger!