Searching for Greater Meaning in Photography
Over the last three years, I’ve been trying to find meaning in my photography. The exploration that I undertake week after week with my partners in crime has always been just a means to that end. In a manner of speaking, they’re all studies in observation, technique, and personal expression - all of which can then be further broken down into smaller subgroups relating to subject, location, camera system, and medium. In going through that process, I had hoped to rediscover the spark that started my journey in photography.
Some would say that I needed to find inspiration. But, I never subscribed to that conventional way of thinking. Nor did I ever considered finding a muse to jumpstart my interest. I mean, the last place I wanted to be in was a Wyethesque Helga-like arrangement. That just isn’t for me. When I think about the problem now, I know that it has always been a question of purpose. To be frank, I don’t know what to make of photography in the digital era, given how the rise of idiot-proof documentation and publishing has changed the medium.
The thing is, anybody can manufacture a good image. It is just a matter of finding the right set of conditions to photograph, meaning the subject, the background, and the lighting. So, the more eye-catching the subject is, and the more visually striking the background is, and the more ideal the surrounding light is for the image, the more probable the final documentation will turn out well. And if that doesn’t work out, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed in post with some hands-on manipulation - just to enhance the final presented image.
These days when I look at a photograph, I often wonder if the effort undertaken to capture the image or image set required any personal involvement from the photographer beyond just pointing and clicking. Typically, the photos we see today are questionable in make up. I mean, they seem polished in presentation - always glossy in its tonal contrast and vivid in its color saturation. But, is there anything more to these photos than meets the eye - that is to say - is the final presented image true to the actual image capture?
We all want to believe we are good photographers. To demonstrate our worth, we do our best to offer proof in sharing what we can do. But often, what we can do really isn’t all that good. Taking a good photograph - which sounds easy in theory - isn’t in practice. People on the street (not staying still) are neither framed correctly nor metered accurately. Shutter speed is off, as is focus, and the depth of field. As a result, the final image capture is often a mess, requiring a generous dose of local sharpening, burning, and dodging.
And if we only want the bottom right hand corner of the image capture, we can just keep the portion we want. I mean, what is the harm in discarding half, two-thirds, or even more than three-quarters of a photo, if what we want is only that bottom right hand corner. As long as the final manufactured image is presented as a skillfully taken photo, does it really matter how much is cropped out of the original image capture? In the end, the only issue of concern is whether others can accept manufactured images as skillfully taken photos.
Frankly, it makes one wonder if there is a point in becoming a better photographer. No one really takes photos anymore - at least not in the traditional sense. Most of us only care about collecting visual data for our body of work. How we collect it and whether we meet that end with proper shooting fundamentals and compositional deliberateness is irrelevant. It’s just content in the end. And as long as the visual data is captured with enough usable detail, the appearance of a skillfully taken photograph can be manufactured in post.
Put in that context, you convince yourself the point of photography is to collect visual data. Consequently, you fall under the assumption that gear is crucial in expediting that end. More light sensitivity, faster lenses, higher resolution sensors, better intuitiveness in selecting autofocus points, and greater flexibility in focal length - all accepted as features to chase in this age old cat and mouse game of upgrading to ever newer gear, believing that it will improve our chances of collecting difficult-to-capture visual data.
But does new gear really improve our chances? Does a Canon 1Dx Mark II improve the odds over a Canon 5D Mark IV? And does the 5D Mark IV improve the odds over a Nikon D500? A Fuji X100F? In fact, does it improve the odds over an iPhone 7, 8, X or any Huawei or Android smartphone? And that’s the point. The improvement from more advanced imaging devices over simpler ones isn’t that different. On the periphery of extremes, the more advanced ones have an advantage. But for 90-95% of normal use, it’s not necessary.
As such, what is the point of upgrading to the next generation digital camera, when a smartphone can already take visually appealing photographs? And what is the point of practicing proper shooting fundamentals when smartphones are already designed to idiot-proof the image taking process? When the effort you take doesn’t amount to a material improvement to what smartphones can do in hand, it makes you wonder if it is worth the trouble anymore to be encumbered so needlessly with a premium digital camera.
Smartphones are even better than digital cameras. Unlike your camera, which is generally buried somewhere inside your camera bag, a smartphone is always accessible. It is generally within reach, ubiquitous in drawing attention, and ready to take the shot. Best of all, smartphones are compact in size and light in weight. And, it’s so much easier to share photos taken on a smartphone than photos taken on a digital camera. It’s just a single click to share, and not a series of tedious steps to enable pairing between two devices.
The nagging prospect of futility in both the practice of following proper fundamentals in photography and the use of premium gear in the process of documentation is deeply discouraging. Seeing folks take good photos without mastery in execution or care in gear selection makes me question the purpose of photography in our present day social media era of digital imaging. It is not as if the photos I capture look significantly better than most decent photos, taken with regular smartphones, that is shared on social media.
I mean, why bother? Why go through all the hassle of lugging around an oversized camera, if it will not make a difference? For three years, I’ve been trying to answer that question on this blog with my studies, explorations, and photowalks. What’s even more, I also went through the hype of product cycle upgrades. And for a while, it was fun. But, it was not fulfilling. That was the key missing component in my journey to find meaning. I was just so consumed by collecting visual data that I could not work out what photography meant to me.
It is not about being clever in documentation or polished in presentation. And, it was never about the subjects I photographed either. The pursuit of photography is about me. It’s about my observations, my interpretations, and my act of expression through compositional and technical mastery of the medium. All I am doing is being myself. To borrow from Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Beethoven in the film Immortal Beloved, it’s about bringing others directly into my state of mind - what I’m feeling, what I’m seeing, and what I’m experiencing.
If all we seek in photography is to document, then we fail ourselves with what we’re doing. There is nothing at all special about documenting the world. We can all do that. Most of us have access to a smartphone (outside undeveloped economies). So, most of us can collect visual data, manufacture a presentable image, and share it on social media. In contrast, what is surprisingly less common is a willingness to expose one’s state of mind in photographic expression. I mean, why bother taking photos if it’s not going to be about yourself?
As a purpose, there’s personal fulfillment in revealing one’s state of mind in photographic expression. Nothing can be more meaningful than a selfish pursuit - whether from the viewpoint of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness. In order to push ourselves directly and push the envelope indirectly, we must be daring enough to believe in ourselves, our vision, and our efforts - regardless of how crazy our undertaking might be. If you want to do anything special, you must be willing to stick your neck out to make it happen.
Sometimes we call it a labor of love. Sometimes we describe it as madness. Whatever it is, it must come from deep within yourselves. Nothing superficial. Nothing manufactured. It must be you; because, in a world where everything can be manufactured, there is only one you. And, that is the only distinction that makes your efforts potentially special and unique.
Last, I am aware that not everyone is striving to put everything on the line - colloquially speaking - in the same way that poor old Vincent “suffered for his sanity… [o]n that starry, starry night”. But for your own sake, I believe you might find a more selfish approach to photography more fulfilling and thus more meaningful in purpose.
PS: A shoutout to JCH Street Pan 400. It’s a demanding black and white film to use. But when you meter it right in documentation, it renders tonality with defined contrast - which makes it noticeably contemporary in look.
All images have been digitized on a Pakon F135, automatically cropped from full negative during the scanning process, and tweaked in Adobe Lightroom.