Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Draw: why we photograph

"Why don't you just look at it instead of taking a photo?" my American friend asked after I had insisted he pull over so I could photograph a classic New England barn, surrounded by pristine new snow.
I stood there, knee-deep in the soft, light whiteness, trying to capture the barn in a way that reflected how I saw it.
It got me thinking though - his question - because so often we feel a photo must be taken at this or that place, almost as a sort of proof we were actually there.

Now - I was here - fully present, aware of the snow slowly melting into the inside of my boots, my friend anxiously waiting in the car, and the light making it all appear so flat. I took the shot anyway. I wasn't pleased with it, but I had to have it. I needed to possess that moment - right there, right then.

 

I think about photography a lot. I wonder - who do we photograph for? Ourselves? Others? What do we do with the photos once they become a number on our hard drive, tucked away in some folder - not unlike old photos sitting in a dusty old album. Are they ever seen again? 
I own a high-end crop sensor camera. It's not a "professional" camera by any means and I confess to absolutely wanting a really really nice camera that has more capabilities than my current model. But there's a funny little voice that says "you can't have one of those until you're GOOD at what you do!".
What is "good"?
I see tourists here in Dunedin - bus loads of them - many with high-end expensive professional level cameras. They take photos of anything and everything. Why? I think scathingly that they can't even compose a decent shot and they probably use their camera on auto settings; and their $5000 worth of camera body is wasted. 

 

Yet they take their photos for the same reasons 
I take mine; because the subject matter is ours for a brief moment in time. Fleetingly, we own it.

 

We each see a different world through the lens of our camera - yes sure you could argue that Photoshop, Lightroom and other post-production tools make image manipulation that much easier, but yet, in a similar way that a painter captures a scene through his or her own interpretation with a brush, so too the photographer creates an image that reflects his or her own creative slant on the subject using available tools - or perhaps none at all. Not every shot requires further interpretation; some require more. It's personal, you see.

 

But still - why do we photograph?  I know why I photograph: to create and evoke emotion; to communicate visually an idea, feeling or context; to fulfill that creative need I have always had and finally, to share how I see the world  with others.

 

For the tourist hurriedly snapping a photographic record of a holiday; taking the cliched iconic "been there" shots which anchor the visual account of their experience, is no less an interpretation of a context than the best photographer in the world would be capable of. Photography is compellingly subjective.
It is also compellingly addictive. I remember when I owned my cafe in Motueka; I was hunting the perfect coffee, every single moment I made one. In this sense, I am hunting the perfect image, every time I open that shutter to capture what it is aimed at. I have an idea in my head of how I want it to look - my way of seeing it - and that is what drives and draws me to keep taking photos. I want to get better at interpretation of what I see and feel from being in that place, in that moment, at that time.

 

I sometimes see photography as the phenomenological way of seeing - and of being in - the world. Photography for me is ontological, although some may argue how can it be, when there is a camera lens between the subject and myself? The camera lens is myself.