Monday, February 8, 2016

Why Look?

This is the essential question for most people who take pictures. Why would anyone else look at my pictures? Turn that around. Why would I look at your pictures?

Is the subject matter alone compelling? Pretty girl? A one-time event? A unique object? You can pretty much just record that, and the subject alone will carry it, to a degree.

Do I know you? I'll probably look at your pictures because of that personal connection. I will genuinely find more to like about your pictures of the same old shit, specifically because I know and like you.

What about, say, Antarctica? It's a pretty compelling place, sure, but there are a lot of photographs of it, and I have no built-in interest as I do for, say, pictures of people. Why would I look at your pictures, rather than some other bloke's pictures? Yes, yes, I know, you brought your unique vision, blah blah blah. No, in general, you didn't. You rode in the same Zodiacs past the same interchangeable hunks of ice to visit the same interchangeable penguin herds on the same interchangeable ice shelves and you made the same pictures everyone else did. Oh, put you punched up the red tones in post? Good for you.

This, essentially, is why I keep ranting on and on about having to form an opinion. What you think is your unique vision, in general, isn't. Bringing a distinctive hand to the pictures doesn't consist of using a longer lens, or a wider aperture, or getting closer, or farther away. That's a finite space of possibility, it's completely mined out, and consists largely of tiny fiddles that nobody except you notices.

When grownups are talking about bringing their unique vision, they're not talking about getting low to the ground, they're talking about having an idea, a concept, of what they're shooting. It is that mental construct that colors and shapes the work, not the selection of tools and angles. If you have the mental construct, the rest follows.

I can visualize how this happens. Someone who's actually pretty good starts in talking about their concept for a body of work, how they formed ideas and opinions, and what they wanted to express, and then towards the end some phrase like "and so I selected a wide angle lens for.." sneaks in. The camera enthusiast hears a sort of Charlie Brown Adult speech:

Wah wahhh wah I selected a wide angle lens wah wAHH

and learns that a distinctive point of view has to do with lens selection.

But what about those unique events? Certainly you can just shoot them, and get some traction. It's unique, and if I'm interested in the event or whatever it is, I'll probably look. Still, a point of view will certainly help. Consider W. Eugene Smith's pictures from Minamata. On the one hand, the subject matter is compelling as hell. On the other hand I feel pretty safe asserting that Mr. Smith had some opinions to express, and the work is all the stronger for that.

Minamata wasn't a run-and-gun deal, he spent a couple of years at it. He wasn't zooming past anyone on a Zodiac. He wasn't hiking up the creek to where he heard there was a great waterfall, timing it to arrive at The Golden Hour, and then leaving. He was living and breathing the situation on the ground and, as near as I can tell, getting seriously pissed off about it.

I'm pretty sure an opinion is always going to help, unless you're making some sort of record photographs for scientific or engineering purposes?


  1. If I look at a scene and sense that it stirs something inside me, I'll take the picture. I enjoy looking at pictures which invoke that same emotion in me; pictures which fail to do so leave me cold. I look at pictures from Antarctica because I'm curious how it looks like (never been there), but in the same way I'll look at pictures of a car crash in the local newspaper.

    In order to produce pictures that I like, I have to commit to some emotional engagement with the subject. For me, this is a slow process (I shoot landscapes for this reason). Pictures I take on travels are mostly failures (aside from family snaps), therefore, the camera stays at home on vacations.

  2. Your comment about Antarctica pictures has some of the flavor of Reagan's "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all." There are many beautiful views in Antarctica, many vivid street scenes, etc. Someone who takes a picture and wants to share their sense of the beauty or vividness is - in all likelihood - not thinking primarily about their unique vision, but rather about an aesthetic sensation that they feel others may respond to. And sometimes they do.

    1. If people keep taking the same pictures of redwoods over and over again, then indeed once you've seen one you've seen them all. Which isn't the same as seeing a redwood tree.

      One can go ahead and shoot pretty much the standard shots of things, and people who haven't seen them over and over again will likely find them stunning and wonderful. It being a big world, there's likely to be many of those people out there.

      The difference between what I am proposing and what people tend to do is almost precisely the difference between finding a personal interpretation of a piece of music at the piano, and simply playing it as notated by one arranger or another. The latter can be perfectly lovely, and your friends and family will probably approve. It can also be perfectly satisfying.

      The main difference between playing music and taking pictures (in this analogy) is that finding a personal interpretation of a picture is pretty easy. In both cases, music and photography, all you really need is an idea, an opinion, and the technical skills to express it. Having an opinion is pretty easy, I find (although I suppose some people might not find it so). The technical chops to execute a picture you have an idea for are just not that hard to learn. This is not true for a musical instrument, in general.

    2. "Which isn't the same as seeing a redwood tree." Exactly. Your nuanced comment, which accepts that photographers can feel satisfaction working at a superficial level, I think describes most of us and should make us question our work and try for something more. How can we make a photo that is closer to actually seeing the redwood tree?

  3. Good heavens, amolitor, I agree with you! I shall now certainly need therapy. I frequently photograph a genre (the nude) where quality and innovation are a rarity, where good taste is the exception, and gross imitation, wheel-reinvention and cliché are the rule. There is a preference for 'capturing' or 'shooting' whole bodies, appropriate terminology for results that may have their exact counterparts in the poses of wild animals photographed on safari.

  4. Love that part about "Charlie Brown Adult speech" - you've found a perfect way to explain why getting some understanding on concept in photography is so difficult.