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 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 later 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 taken on a recent journey that they had been on. 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? Were we boasting the richness of experience that our lives have brought us? Maybe, in seeking some form of connection through the experiences we’ve had, there exists a value extending beyond our own individual memory? Maybe a combination, or some other reason altogether.
Well, some years and many thousands of photographs later, it has occurred to me that many 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, if not, more so. Yet, it has occurred to me that the choice to take a photograph in the first place can be simplified into two simple objectives. To me this is important, being the moment of creation, and also, in that timely decision to open the shutter, exists the origin of any reaction that particular exposure may in time, 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 photograph crime scenes, or astrophysicists who capture scenes from the far off reaches of time and space in our universe. These photographs are taken with the knowledge that there is more to what we are seeing than meets the eye, and that further exploration and experimentation, might expose a novel perspective of the subject. Ironically, I feel this can apply to pure artistic experimentation as well, wherein the photographer can manipulate the interface between camera and subject to record equally novel perspectives. Such as creating long exposures that can reveal supernatural patterns previously unknown to our eye, or ‘shooting from the hip’ unaware of what is being captured within the frame. It could be argued that the strange desire to take photographs of ourselves, might fit 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 awe in discovering the visual world in new ways, seeing what we may have never seen otherwise, and reveling in the novelty of it.
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 probably also mutually exclusive of one another, since without intentional observation, it would be impossible to define 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?
This might all be true, but by my understanding, while technical knowledge and high end equipment might improve the objective and technical quality of your images, the subjective content of your images, though it can never be quantified, is almost completely reliant on where your mind is focused in the moments before exposure. Eventually also, in your audiences perspective in the moment they see what you’ve recorded on film. I think back to those living rooms full of friends and relatives flipping through glossy images, and try to remember those experiences, and will take notice of moments like these in the future (glossy prints being replaced by glowing digital frames). If you are the one doing the showing, it could be the elation of sharing with the people you care about, an experience that was profound or special to you in some way. If you are the observer, you might experience an empathetic response to the moments being shared with you. Many times it isn’t the technical finesse the photographer has exhibited in the shot that you notice, though it could certainly add depth to a scene. It almost definitely isn’t the quality of the print that is facilitating that personal connection (unless you’re at an exhibition). The magic is in the very human act of sharing and communicating a sensual experience (get your minds out of the gutter folks), and having the ability to do so in a way that transcends spoken, or written language. Of course the 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 yourself (the photographer) simply as 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 peoples photographs. Though, as close as they may come, they will not often 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 the adventures had in finding those images. Maybe even go back to those old dusty bins and pull out the faded polaroids and slides of decades passed. Then go out and do it again.
It seems silly to put into so many words, but why wouldn’t we want to look at and share photographs when we were, in one moment, so inspired to capture them in the first place?