A video post by The Art of Photography expressed a lot of thoughts I’d been mulling around photography. The video is called Nobody Cares About Your Photography. I’d highly recommend watching it, whether you’re a professional, a serious amateur, or even just a fan of photography.
When I posted it on a Facebook group catering to photographers who still enjoy using film, I was surprised that many people seemed to misunderstand what it asks of us–especially since, as I’d noted in my post, film photographers are not great followers of the herd. Many critics in the comments to my post believed that the video creator was unfairly asking us to do something never before seen in photography, or sell our cameras. That is not at all what I hear in this video, and I’d like to briefly explain.
I used this example from my photography. I took the image below in the Drakensberg Mountains (“Dragon Mountains”) here in South Africa. Now this is a pretty picture that used a lot of accumulated skill to achieve. The composition, the choice of film, the choice of shutter speed and aperture, the setting of the focus point, the height of the tripod, the cunning extra bracing against a sapling and weighing down of said tripod were all consciously worked out using what I’d learned over many years.
It’s pretty. I’m fond of it. But look what happens if I google, “forest stream slow shutter” There are literally thousands of images–some better, some worse–that attempt to do exactly the same thing. We’ve absorbed an idea as photographers that success is to achieve the same beautiful image that many other people have already taken.
Here’s my symmetrical picture of the Taj Mahal. When I look at this, I wonder why I even pressed the shutter. Even some of the pics I took of the Taj to give a “different” view, because I wasn’t unconscious of this issue, probably get taken several to hundreds of times a day.
Now it’s all very well to say: “Ah. But this is mine. It’s a souvenir of my trip.” But then why even bother learning the skills of photography and investing in expensive gear? If it’s just a souvenir, and you can find better on any google image search, why not just take a few phone snaps?
And here’s where the critics feel cornered. “If I can’t take any original photographs of the Taj Mahal, what do you suggest I photograph? Should I just leave my camera at home?” And the video actually answers that question.
Let’s stop trying to take pictures that are of universal importance. Most of us well never succeed. Even most pros never take anything that will be remembered by the world in general. The alternative is to use your skills to take pictures that are of specific, local importance. Often this means a body of work instead of trying to take that one killer image of an over-famous place, that sells for six and a half million dollars (inexplicably, in my opinion. This is another image of a clichéd subject that is not really rejuvenated by a slight twist. I very much doubt that this image will retain its value).
Projects are key. Projects that will be of lasting importance to people and places that otherwise go poorly documented. The example I used in my Facebook post was documenting your kid’s karate tour. A critic said that that had been done before. That misses the point. People come and go. Unless they’re Brangelina, they very rarely get photographed like the Taj Mahal. A highly skilled photographer can turn their camera to something like that, and it will be valued by all involved for their lifetime and quite likely beyond.
Likewise, a local community, and its buildings and businesses, will go undocumented but for dodgy snapshots on phones that will likely mostly be lost. Look at some of the amazing sequences taken by amateurs featured on The Retronaut. These pictures are important now both as documents and because they looked beyond the limited sight of a snap-shooter. This may not allow for the autopilot shooting of half-dome in Yosemite, but it will be valued long after everyone realises that none of those photographs of Yosemite mean anything after Ansel Adams made the definitive images.
A series of images of unusual animal behaviour rather than trying to get the perfect image of that animal. A series of studio lit portraits of show-chickens. Your local hiking area instead of bloody Lake Louise (if I never again see one…). These are things that are beyond a quick google search to find thousands of beautiful images. No one’s asking you to give up photography, or to become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson. Use your skills, as the video says, for things that matter. Things that matter to someone, not everyone. But those over-photographed places and those clichéd images don’t matter to anyone who’s capable of using google image search.
My project isn’t going to be terribly exciting. I simply intend to take a lot of portraits of people I know, as well as I can, using my Pentax 6×7 and one of those beautiful colour negative films that give such magic skin tones (e.g., Portra 160, Fujicolour NPH400) and then make very large, 20″x24″ photographic prints to give to the subject. With luck, a handful of them will be in the possession of great, great grand-children, and great-great grand nephews and nieces as among the best images they have of a long dead relative, taken by a long-dead photographer. By then, the only picture of Half-Dome in Yosemite anyone will care about will still be one by Ansel Adams.