Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Photographing the Novel

I recently read (skimmed) an article on how taking a photograph of something seems to impair your ability to remember that something. This dovetails with, but is different from, the notion that possessing photographs of something (or someone) makes it more difficult to recall the subject of the photograph (one tends to recall not the subject, but the photograph.)

While the article was interesting (thanks, E!), the part which struck me was that it's about people photographing subjects they have not seen before. The implication is that when you go on holiday to experience new things, you will remember the things better if you don't photograph them. I almost never do this. I don't photograph things which are new to me, as a general rule.

This is not something I have made a conscious choice about, as far as I recall. It has simply happened that, for the most part, I photograph things which are intensely familiar to me. Usually over and over.

This is the exact opposite of Workshop Photography, which is explicitly about going somewhere new to see novel things, and to photograph them. I have long railed against this practice, insisting that you cannot actually make any visual sense out of anything if you just showed up yesterday.

I am not sure how this relates, exactly, to the research cited at the very beginning. Certainly (?), though, it is consistent with the idea that, when confronted with something novel and new while we are holding a camera with intent to photograph, we do not really see the thing in the same way, or in as much depth. At any rate, our memory of the thing is apparently weaker, which is nearly the same thing (does it matter if we "see" it deeply in the moment, when we can't recall it particularly?)

Photographs and photography tend, I believe, to reduce our perception of things to the visual. We are less aware of the wind, of the smell, of the temperature, of how we feel when we are hunched over the camera, trying to frame the thing just so. If, arguably, we don't even see it as well in the end, then in a very real way all we are left with are some photographs taken of something we never really experienced in the first place.

Ok, fair enough, that's a bit hyperbolic, but the point is that we're experiencing these things less deeply, we're feeling less deeply, than we would be if we'd left the camera behind. That seems to be incontrovertible. To what degree it is true probably varies a lot, and perhaps much of the time it's a minor effect.

Nevertheless, if we have the time and the interest to experience a thing without the camera, we will (evidently), develop a deeper experience, a more profound feeling, a more thorough and nuanced understanding of the thing. If we then go back with the camera, perhaps we can find something distinctive, something personal.

When someone "goes somewhere" to shoot "those things" they seem to invariably come back with the same photos everyone else does. This appears, in fact, to be the purpose of these expeditions. It's sort of like big game hunting, albeit less odious. The point is simply to acquire something, to have done something, for the pride of doing it. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this (the photographic version) it does not strike me particularly as having much to do with photography. You could go there and bring back a pebble, or a nail, or a postcard, with much the same effect.

I like my way better. Plus it involves a lot less travel (I hate travelling.)


  1. For me, I know when a photograph is working well when I can 'hear' whatever sounds could or might be present in the scene. It's not often, but it does happen.

  2. I am with you here. We have gone to the same village in Provence for twenty years. It was only five years ago that I started to get pictures that I liked from there. I need a lot of time to burrow beneath the surfaces of things to see what is there for me beyond the postcards.

  3. Perhaps this is why people take so many selfies. They know the subject... intimately. There is a real opportunity for art there. Something to think about?

  4. I may have told this story here before, but I remember particularly an event that happened while driving south on beautiful HY395 in the Eastern Sierra of California, toward the White Mountains. The weather was unsettled. There appeared in the sky a brilliant double rainbow. I pulled over, as did several other drivers. I would have photographed the thing but my camera was packed in the back of my car and I knew that by the time I dug it out and attached the right lens, the rainbow could be gone. So instead I just looked and marveled at the phenomenon. I doubt my photos would have been very good. Years later I remember the rainbow for what it was and not the non-existent photos I could have taken. I do believe the thesis that for all the concentration we bring to photographing something, we may remember the photographs more than the thing photographed.