Does a photograph always need to tell a story? Are the only truly great photographs ones which change the world, record a decisive moment, or leave you with a sense of technical accomplishment? Is the practice and art of photography really so tightly defined that we must seek a deeper truth either in the philosophical understanding of its history or the urgency of its continued relevance in face of a seemingly larger audience?
There are some who would have you believe that the only moments worth capturing are those which make a statement, tell a story, or bear some variety of emotional weight. This, of course, is only partially true. Photography has grown bigger than its heritage. Every photograph has potential value if you are able to convince others of its worth. Its subjectivity is its biggest ally as it continues to grow exponentially.
Photography has no rules or boundaries, what bores one onlooker may fascinate another. Up until the past few years, the core concepts of capturing a photograph were based on its technical limitations. This has quickly changed in the digital world and so has the way many people view photography in general.
If you look closely you can start to see legions form, all of which make attempts to put a cap on what it takes to be a real photographer. There are the gear heads, addicted to an imaginary technical perfection; those who shoot their lives with purpose as they hold onto photography as a fine art; the film pushers, hanging on for dear life; the minimalists that shoot only with their iPhones out of principle, or because they are burnt out after years behind “expensive, cumbersome” cameras; and of course others who fancy their approach to be the one true path to photographic enlightenment.
I hope you realize I am making over-generalizations on purpose. Each is noble in its own right and no matter which part of the pie chart you squeeze into the fact remains that the core of photography is simple, immediate, and the same for all of us. No mater what our personal aspirations or beliefs are, we all share something in common, a way of life lead by the allure of capturing its beauty one frame at a time.
If your camera is a weight on your shoulder that causes you to miss the truly great moments of your life while hiding behind a viewfinder, you may have some priorities to reconsider, or maybe your taste in gear at least.
For many of us, life and photography are not mutually exclusive, but this isn’t true for everyone, some people get mixed up with fancy cameras because they think they need one which will make their photographs look on par with that of a professional. This can be a successful venture if the person buying in is able to creatively use the full capabilities of a camera without it getting in the way of actually taking photos.
This assumed need is a symptom of wider issues at work, partially due to the marketing of early affordable DSLR bodies before we all had such great cameras in our mobile phones and partially because of the DIY revelations that so many of us collectively had when digital cameras started to flood our daily lives.
It all happened so quickly, and with such sweeping force that it left us in a world where the skills needed to be competent with photography have become increasingly ambiguous and the pressure to take photos that appear “professional” has left many spending nonsensical amounts of money on gear that they don’t particularly need or fully understand.
Photography is a privilege we are lucky to have, but it should never get in the way of our happiness, it should pull us toward it like a magnetic force. The secret to great photography has nothing to do with your philosophy, your choice of format, or your pedigree. Let your camera be your compass. Live first, then shoot.
If there is one thing I can thank my photography addiction for, it’s the wonderful experiences and places it has taken me in the spirit of capturing my life on film. A camera is always going to be just that, a camera. Be it an iPhone, DSLR, Leica, or a point and shoot plastic lomo camera. The best camera is the one that leads you to happiness. If having a camera in your life is a burden, it will continue to be one no matter the size or format.
The challenges present in photography today are not in the devices we use to capture, it’s not in our approach, skill level, or what we think we need to create good photos; the problem today is in social pressure. Photography has quickly evolved in its short lifespan from revolutionary, to useful, to ubiquitous and full of expectation.
Like the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, or the houses we live in, our photographs are another vehicle to which the world judges us because the world expects to see proof of our beautiful, happy lives and we have grown to crave that attention. In this light, photography has grown vain in its old age.
We shoot, we shoot, and we shoot… and then we share. Sometimes to prove our good taste or creative ability, but also, in many cases, as a means to feel alive because we have generated this need to prove something to others and to ourselves.
It’s not quite vanity because it’s not as simple as that. It’s something entirely new to humanity that we are still trying to define and understand and it has fundamentally changed photography as we once knew it. So how do those of us still holding onto photography as an art form handle such pressures and threats of irrelevance?
Our theoretical perspective or personal vision is what separates us from every one else with a camera in their hands at any given moment. What happens then, when every photo of an apple starts to look like every other photo taken of an apple? They pile higher and higher until the very concept of photographing it becomes insignificant. Who gives two shits about your apple, or mine?
We have long passed the point of no return in this regard. The saturation of our visually recorded modern lives is unbearable at times. A smile is a smile, a tree is a tree, drama is drama. No matter the staggering beauty, cultural relevance, or technical prowess of a photograph, most eyes will only glance at our hard work for but a few short seconds unless there is something else to connect them to what they see such as a story, memory, or legend. A trend which foreshadowed the growing popularity and creation of photo essay platforms to combine writing with photography.
Our ability to appreciate beauty is being commodified, vacuum sealed, and turned into a competition. I have discussed this among these pages before. Our attention spans are delicate.
I imagine us as a flock of birds drifting through the sky. Thousands focused and flying in the same direction, then, without warning, a sudden and collaborative shift sends us soaring in a different direction as though we are all collectively lost and fighting just to keep up with everyone else in fear of being left behind. By breaking away from the flock we risk being left behind so more often than not we find ourselves soaring right back into line.
A quote from a fictitious newscast on the show ‘Louie’ just came to mind, “A small bird died today due to sadness. He was six years old.”
The solution here is obvious and most of us are already well aware of this tune, don’t shoot to share, shoot because you love what your shooting. Shoot to remember. Make your photographs in your own image and personality. Use photography to tell the story of you.
If it’s so easy then why is it so hard to break away from the flock? When you create something you are proud of you want to plaster it on the moon for the world to see. The validation a “like” gets us is a good old fashioned addiction. Deny it all you want, you know you love it, as do I. It’s validation, fuel for future fires.
Art evolves, always, as do we, so its important to adapt and create a mental space where you can challenge yourself to be great at what you do. Not by anyone else’s standards, but by your own. Make photography more about you and less about everyone else that may be watching.
Don’t forget what makes photography so great, the joyfulness it can bring and the vitality it gives those who get lost in the process.
Though we are faced with the odds stacked against us any time we pull out a camera, I still believe that there is room to use photography to better our lives and the lives of others. I only dig deep into the criticisms and fears of photography today as a means to pull it all to the surface so its easier to brush away.
What then about motivation? It would be impossible to know where to start without inspiration from other photographers we admire. It’s good to trace the steps of those who captured their lives before us on film, fleeting and unknowing of the impact they may hold on the next generation of photographers. Understand their motives, learn from their goals, and find ways to use their creative spirit to explore your own. Learning the roots of this field is indispensable. Having a working knowledge of what makes a camera tick and what worked and didn’t work for others in the past is vital in any field and it’s no different here.
Your tool of choice is your choice. Spend money on a camera, or not, but don’t do it to feel more confident or to fit in. Buy a camera that suits your lifestyle. If you can spare the space at your side to carry an SLR and you feel this will help you somehow then go for it. If you have your hands full with diaper bags and toys then your iPhone may be all you could ever need. Personally, my go to suggestion these days are in the land of mirrorless cameras or for the more adventurous, a film body like an Olympus Om-2.
I chose some older film shots to go along with these opinions because I thought they were telling of the vein of thought I have been stuck in, one where format or approach is irrelevant in the long run, it all adds up into a greater narrative over time. The format and approach I have taken through the years has varied a fair amount but has always been a big part of defining the feelings I carried while shooting. I shot film when I feel a deeper connection to what I am shooting, I shoot digital when I simply want to remember. My compositions and developing have similar fingerprints in that they tell me a lot about how I felt when I made the photographs. Every click of the shutter for me is a moment worth remembering and it’s the memories that make photography so gratifying for me. I find so much to be thankful for when I look back through the images I have captured through the years.
Alright, well, enough for today. I started writing this a couple of weeks back after listening to a podcast about photography and it turned into a state of the union essay of sorts on how I see the art of photography these days. Part of me, in the back of my mind, thought I could nurse this into a small book but I’m not quite to that comfort level with my writing just yet and I feel so many of the ideas worth debating in this space have been discussed and directed to death and often wonder if I have enough fresh ideas to add to the conversation. So, till next time, may the wonder of photography to continue to take you places you never imagined. Get out there and shoot.