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Photography and The Wonder of Life

A Meditation on Why I Photograph

Guy Tal

Guy Tal

Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US. Website

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What we need is more sense of the wonder of life and less of this business of making a picture. ~Robert Henri

By asking photographers why they photograph I learned that many are unable to clearly articulate their reasons; and among those who do cite such reasons, I am often intrigued by the diversity of answers. This is to be expected, after all, we are different people with different interests, circumstances and sensibilities. However, on more than one occasion, after a photographer has passionately explained their reasons for practising photography, they also conceded discrepancies between their stated motivations—what they hoped to gain from photography—and their lack of satisfaction with the actual experience of making photographs.

Susan Sontag wrote, “It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.” And, “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.”

Indeed, this seems to be a common mode of work for many photographers today: not to pursue a desired experience for its own sake and to be moved by such experience to create expressive photographs, but rather to produce photographs as a means of socialising (“I’ve been to such-and-such-place, too,” “I have this brand of camera, too,” “I like using my smartphone, too,” etc.), competing with, or impressing others. 

This seems to be a common mode of work for many photographers today: not to pursue a desired experience for its own sake and to be moved by such experience to create expressive photographs, but rather to produce photographs as a means of socialising

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Years ago, among other factors, the recognition that such discrepancies existed in my work, and conceding that whatever excuses I could come up with to justify them ultimately amounted to denial and rationalisation, changed my life in ways far exceeding my approach to photography. 



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  • Mike Chisholm

    That quote from Susan Sontag encapsulates an attitude towards photography that, I suspect, most of us who take a camera out into the landscape will have encountered at some time. “Can’t you put that thing away and just BE here?” You have to wonder how she and Annie Leibovitz got on if they ever took country walks together…

    It’s a moralising smugness, that suggests that the use of a camera is a way of commodifying a real “experience” into some kind of ersatz substitute, and also an accusation that one is somehow substituting activity for feeling. Which is, as we know, ridiculous. And I doubt that anyone who pulls out a sketchpad or paints ever gets the same response.

    Mike

    • Thank you, Mike!

      I agree, but I would also caution against disregarding ideas just because, on their face, they come across as smug or vain. In a sense any creative act—the making of something novel, whether in art or writing or by any means of expression—is inherently arrogant, and particularly so when the author points out incongruities or contradictions; expresses some deviation from the norm, or promotes some strong opinion that is instinctively rejected by those who are uncomfortable examining or defending their position. Indeed some such authors may truly be vain (see Karsh quote below), but creative courage can easily be confused with vanity, and the two may sometimes overlap, too.

      But, regardless of how an idea (especially a provocative one) is communicated, one is potentially short-changing themselves by not giving it due consideration, no matter how upsetting it may be at first encounter. It’s the only way toward evolution and progress, and those who fail to examine their own views against well-reasoned alternative can never be sure that they are doing right by themselves, or by the discipline they belong to.

      “If there is a single quality that is shared by all great men, it is vanity. But I mean by ‘vanity’ only that they appreciate their own worth. Without this kind of vanity they would not be great. And with vanity alone, of course, a man is nothing.” ~Yousuf Karsh

  • Thanks Guy, for another wonderful thought-provoking essay.

    My feeling is that there is a wide range of photographers and motivations for photography.

    On the one end of the spectrum are some, who seek out to take certain photographs and bring them home (a little bit like trophies). For them, the act of taking the photograph itself possibly is the experience.
    On the other end of that spectrum are those, who like to immerse themselves in nature and whose photography is a collection of the imprints that this experience leaves on them.

    Not trying to attach a value judgement on this (although I have my personal preference). I simply realized that for me it helps, to find out where you are on that range.
    So for example it’s now perfectly fine for me not to plan out the position of the sun with an app, and such like – even though this seems to be how many successful photographers work.
    But that’s not where my photos come from. They come from the experience itself -from things that I could never calculate in advance.
    A very liberating feeling to understand this for myself. Which has led to better and more interesting experiences when out and about.

    • Well put, Tilman. My intent is not to suggest that my way is unequivocally “right” or best for anyone, but rather that there may be great (life changing, at times) benefit to examining your motivations and work, and to making sure you are getting the most value (however you choose to define it) from the money, time and effort you invest in photography. I’ll go a step further and say that I believe it is a good thing to do at regular intervals, as such motivations and values are not fixed quantities and may evolve and change over time.

  • Thomas Rink

    Why I take photographs? That’s a superficially simple question – as far as the result is considered, I take pictures because I enjoy looking at them (not restricted to my own pictures, not even restricted to photography). So when I’m out with my camera, it’s foremost about taking pictures. As far as the *process* is concerned, I find the act of taking pictures highly satisfying – sauntering around aimlessly, the mind open but at the same time attentive – everything is possible – and afterwards the feeling of gratefulness if I got some pictures which “turned out” (which is often the case).
    The other way round, when the experience of being somewhere matters, I don’t bring a camera. For this reason, I generally leave my camera at home when we go for vacation (even if the destination is the Scottish Highlands).

    • My hat’s off to you, Thomas. That was beautifully stated.

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