Photography, since it’s earliest of forms, was designed to capture the light of what’s in front of us and to preserve it for the future. Despite where you choose to take it from here in practice, there is no escaping this fundamental truth, and though its been almost 200 years since the first photograph was captured, we continue to obsess over these superficial representations of the world in which we live.
Whether you prefer to identify as a photographer or not, our present circumstances have gifted many of us with the seemingly limitless ability to create photographs at almost no cost of effort, and we cannot seem to help ourselves. This cannot have been by accident. There must be a reason for our obsession, and if there is, what is the best way to capture what we have been looking for?
I was not around when Joseph Niépce took the first photograph out of his apartment window, nor even when George Eastman released the simple Brownie camera to the public en masse, so I hesitate to value these historic perspectives. Indeed, as many who have taken photographs can understand, the context in which a frame exists is often obscured by the frame itself, so I will take it back as far as I can comfortably recollect with my own photographic memories, so to speak.
Gathered in a relative’s living room, I can remember colorful envelopes folded behind stacks of 25-32 exposures that someone had grabbed on a recent journey that they had taken. Sometimes the images would be familiar, and I could recall in my own mind the moment’s that those images immortalized, while other times, I would look on jealously as worlds unknown to me were locked behind glossy stock. The photographs would be flipped through, admired, passed on to the next set of curious eyes, and for what? Are we boasting the richness of experience that our lives have brought us? Maybe we are seeking some form of affirmation that, in the experiences we’ve had, there exists a value extending beyond our own memory? Or could it be that we are simply trying to communicate the wonder we possessed at the instant of exposure?
Well, some years and many thousands of photographs later, it has occurred to me that photographs will ultimately be shared, and the reasons behind why they are shared can be as diverse as the individuals who choose to share them, multiplied by every moment any photograph has ever been shared. Yet, it seems that the choice to take a photograph in the first place can be simplified into two simple objectives. To me this seems important, being the moment of creation, and also, in the timely decision to open a shutter exists the origin of any reaction that particular exposure may invoke.
First, we take photographs of scenes that we anticipate others might have an interest in viewing. Sometimes this instinct is spontaneous and emerges only as the image itself unfolds before us. Other times, we might have been asked as a bystander to take a camera in order to capture a complete family, not void of the loved one wielding the device. Even better yet, if you’re lucky and talented enough, you could be paid for your visual perspective of major affairs, such as weddings, banquets, sporting events, etc.
Secondly, we take photographs out of curiosity and personal or professional interest in further exploring what we have found before us. You might relate this to a scientific practice of photography, as criminal investigators who might photograph a crime scene, or astrophysicists who capture scenes from the far off reaches of our universe. These photographs are taken with the knowledge that there is more to what we are seeing than meets the eye, and further exploration, or even experimentation, might expose a novel perspective of our subject. Also fitting into this category, are long exposures that often create supernatural patterns previously unknown to our eye, or “shooting from the hip” unaware of what is being captured within the frame. Many might even say that the strange desire to take photographs of ourselves fits into this standard, by allowing us to explore an otherwise impossible view of our body (As opposed to mirrors where we are seeing a flipped image). Yet put simply, I like to think about this choice as reflective of our desire to further examine the visual world in whatever detail provided for us, in order to see what might have been missed otherwise.
Now, our choice to push the shutter button exists, like many things, on a sliding scale between those two extremes of pure experimentation or observation, and entirely aesthetic composition. The two extremes are also mutually exclusive of one another, since without experimentation and observation, it would be impossible to determine what is aesthetically interesting, and there would be little motivation to capture or observe a scene that lacks striking aesthetic qualities.
So, how is this going to help anyone take better photographs? If you’re wielding heavy duty professional equipment, you might spend a lot of time thinking about lighting, framing, camera settings, and gear you wish you had that would make your pictures way better, right? And if you’re just poking at a smartphone screen, why should you even think about this in the first place when it probably will just go up on Facebook anyways?
Well, this might all be true, but the fact is, while technical knowledge and high end equipment might improve the objective quality of your images, the subjective content of your images is completely reliant on the set of eyes behind the glass. Think back to the living room full of relatives looking lovingly through glossy memories, and try to remember what made them important to you. If you were the one doing the showing, it was probably the elation of sharing with the people you care about, an experience that was profound or special to you in some way. If you were the observer, you might have experienced an empathetic response to the moments being shared with you. It probably wasn’t the technical finesse the photographer exhibited in the shot that you noticed, though it could certainly add depth to a scene, and it definitely wasn’t the quality of the print that helped facilitate those emotions. It was the very human act of sharing and communicating a sensual experience (get your minds out of the gutter folks). Of course these Kodak prints are all but gone, stored deep in plastic totes long forgotten, but the act of sharing photographs is more common and easier than it ever has been before.
The point that I’ve been trying to get to, is on the importance of understanding the photographer as simply a person behind a camera. Many people will try to take photographs that emulate what they have seen, and found to be beautiful in other photographs. Though, as close as they may come, they will never find an emotional depth to what they have captured. You must go out and find what in the world inspires your own eye, and photograph it, share the images if you want, but definitely go back to look at them from time to time to reflect on those moments. Then do it again. Maybe even go back to those old dusty bins and pull out the faded polaroids and slides of decades passed.
It seems silly to put into so many words, but why wouldn’t we want to look at and share photographs that we were once so inspired to capture in the first place?