Random thoughts on photography

Photographers generally aspire to express themselves via their work. However, how many of us can claim that they truly understand his or her self? And for those who are brave enough to make such a claim, which part of the self exactly, and why, do you intend to solidify in your work? Quite interestingly, I find that this issue might be addressed by looking at it from the opposite angle, i.e. by trying to understand before expressing yourself through the means of photography. A photograph, or, indeed, any work of art, expresses multiple things at numerous levels and, naturally, every person is attracted to different elements or aspects of a given work. As Ansel Adams put it, "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." Moreover, we only see certain aspects while entirely overlooking other—I am sure you have had the experience when someone finds something in your photographs that you did not see (or, at least, did not intend as the main subject) or makes comments that interpret your work in an unexpected way. And the key is that the aspects that appeal to you on an aesthetic level directly speak to your inner self and are representative of what you are likely to conceive of as essential to your being. Therefore, it is crucial to identify them in both your own and other photographers' work—once pinned down, they will give you an indication of a direction in which your attempts at expressing yourself should be headed. In the long run, the two processes of understanding and expressing one's self will be mutually supportive and defining.

Have you ever thought whether there is a difference between how you conceive of a place (or an event) depending on if you experience it during or as a part of a dedicated photographic activity and otherwise? Also, is there a possible impact on the subsequent memory of the place? Thinking about several recent photographic trips my impression is that the difference is quite noticeable. Without any photo gear you tend to absorb a place in the least biased way as you are just a detached observer not inclined towards an active interpretation. When you have a camera in your hands, on the other hand, a place naturally becomes raw material for a possible artistic expression; you no longer look at it straightforwardly nor do you simply accept it as it is. Instead, you search for expressive elements and a possible connection between them while filtering out inexpressive aspects. Our memory tends to follow the pattern—until an expressive moment is found, it records the place in a nonlinear and sketchy manner and is dominated by the internal workings of the search; once it is found, though, the memory is devoured by the culmination. In effect, we partially substitute reality with an artistic interpretation of that reality and our memory of it is shaped by the creative intent.

Every keen photographer knows that it is very difficult to produce a photograph that rises above mediocrity, and only people in the craft can appreciate all the efforts (years of learning, persistence, extended periods of travel and hard work, not to mention a considerable monetary outlay) that inevitably have to go into a photographic work of art. Put differently, 99.99% of the time the world is not as pretty, organized or purposeful as it is presented in great photographs, paintings or movies; instead, it is generally chaotic, colourless and ruthless. However, we do not remember the skies by the long grayness of winter, we do not remember our beloved by the times when they are angry or listless, and we do not remember our lives by the moments of pain, suffering or boredom. What is it in the human nature, then, that makes us disregard actuality, assign a disproportionate weight to the rare moments of excellence, beauty and harmony and generally regard our surroundings by conditions in which they can be found very seldom? Is it idealism, optimism, or escapism? No matter what it is, though, photographers (and artists in general) are at the forefront of it—it is us who posses the drive to chase and capture that exceptional instant that later will be referred to as our ordinary circumstance.

Brooks Jensen once mentioned in one of his podcasts that life is a process of letting go, and I could not agree more. We let go of some things because we feel that whatever role they were supposed to play has been fulfilled, or because our perception moves onto a higher level and we leave them behind as clothes we can no longer wear or all of sudden find tasteless, or simply because we realise that holding onto them or acquiring more of the same simply is not going to resolve or significantly change anything. There also are things that we have to let go of once we reach a certain point. They, however, are fewer, take a discriminating eye to be recognised as such and, unlike the former variety, require a persistent determination to part with.

From a certain perspective the course of a photographer's artistic evolvement is a process of letting go, too. As one gradually becomes a better photographer and his artistic perception matures, he lets go of the photographic subjects that are not immediately consistent with his essence as well as of the compositions and lighting that are likely to only bring about triviality; this often coincides with moving to bigger and bigger formats—from 35mm to 645 to 6X7 and on to 4X5; this also results in an ever–decreasing number of total shots taken and an ever–increasing number of keepers. He steadily learns to identify less successful photographs and disposes of them increasingly easier. And he discovers that, with time, he needs fewer and fewer pieces of gear, suffers from the E.A.S. (equipment acquisition syndrome) less and less frequently and, quite oddly, even starts bordering on becoming cool.

Are there any things that photographers have to let go of? I would venture to say older technologies, as for any new technology there comes a time when it matures to the point whereby the benefits that it offers are worth the trouble of leaving the comfort zone of the familiar and well practiced. This, however, is not entirely absolute as the medium associated with a given technology always has its unique signature that cannot be completely reproduced by the technology that replaces it. Unlike things unrelated to photography that we have to let go of in the course of our lives, sticking to the look of a particular medium is not detrimental and might even be trendy.

I find it curious how certain things—and people—come and stay in our lives for relatively short periods of time. They fascinate us, teach us new things, open new doors and ways of perception. They, however, burn out fairly quickly and, once devoured, are no longer a part of the intense attention and inevitably become a thing of the past. They are like stepping–stones—but stepping–stones to what? Uncovered yet not–too–deep parts of ourselves? Or parts of ourselves that are not essential in the grand scheme of things? Or are they simply minute fascinations?

Then there are things—and people—that stay much longer or, in terms of the limited span of our lives, even infinitely, suggesting a connection that is much more fundamental to our beings. Upon first encounter they usually give a strong impression of importance, even though at a subconscious level, and take a much longer time to fully understand and appreciate. By the time we completely grasp their depth and importance they have already witnessed and accompanied a considerable stretch of our evolvement and thus become an indispensable part of the process, of the memory of the process, and of the resulting self.

And of course, there are things—and, again, people—that just do not touch us.

What does this all have to do with photography? It seems to me that photographs that we take or see tend to fall into these categories, too.