Why photograph?

A torrent of images.

We live in a world of exploding photographic documentation. Not only is it certain is that the number of photographs taken every year is growing, its growth rate is growing. Years ago, I remember reading that the average American is exposed to as many images in a day as his great-grandparents were in a lifetime; and this was before the explosion of small digital cameras in smartphones. In some ways, this is much adieu about nothing and should be obvious (as a for-instance weigh a modern computer or television screen, which refreshes somewhere on the 24-60 Hz range against the fact that, a few generations prior to our grandparents, the only images were painted or drawn), but in other ways it indicates we have undergone a sea-change in our visual experience. Think about it like this - if you spend your day in front of a computer only to go home to watch television: how much of your primary visual experience is spent focusing on another person’s imagery? A quarter? Half? More?

As a kid, I was at arms reach from a printed photograph, magazine, newspaper or book most of the day. As an adult, in addition to those media, I have at least one device on me at all times that has access to an absolute ocean of images and video - updated instantly and continuously - from around the globe. This is a golden age for photography - it is Gutenberg and moveable type for the punctuated, visceral language of imagery. But where to find your bearings in an churning North Atlantic of imagery? What possible worth can your photography have in an absolute sea of others’ work?

Given that I am not paid to take the photographs that appear on this site, that often they are photographs of areas and things documented every day by other photographers, as an amateur photographer, what value can my pictures possibly have?

“Why bother?” is a question I think relatively few enthusiasts ask themselves either because the answer seems self-evident (“I want to”) or unwelcome (“No need to”). Yet, to ask this question isn't just to wonder if you are wasting time, nor is it to neurosis over the impact you have on or the size of your audience. I think that knowing what value your efforts have is essential to improving what is best about them, it is central to growing in photography and in life. It is in this spirit that I often ask what it is that makes me photograph and what it is that I get in return for photographing.

The answer to this eternal question of ”Why bother?”, for me, is two-fold. The value is in the product and in the process. Allow me to explain.

Sutro Highlands
Sutro Highlands
Where the sidewalk ends, the Sutro Baths

The Product.

By product, of course, I mean the photographs made. On the face of things, the value of the product should be obvious. People love photographs. Photographers love their own photographs (at least I have a seriously strong emotional connection to my own). I publish my photographs online and that is typically where I view them. I do so relatively often. Some images I have bothered to print on canvas and hang on the wall where they can serve as windows onto places I would love to visit once again.

We keep photographs to document big moments in our lives from the cradle to the grave. Be they printed on the wall, sent through email or carefully placed into books or albums, the better a photographer you become, the better a documentarian for your own life you will be. We demand the talents of a great photographer too seldom in our lives, I think. Births, weddings, the occasional portrait sessions and a few other rites of passage get the careful treatment of someone with some real skill, but most moments, even great ones, go past without a keepsake. Part of why I photograph is for the product on the walls and the few frames here and there to serve as placeholders for happy memories. After all, it’s the thesis behind this blog that great photographs are simply keys we use to unlock deep wells of memory and emotion.

It should be mentioned here with special emphasis that the emotional connection that others make with my photographic product is as important to me as the reaction I have. Hearing that my picture brings a smile to another person’s face, or that it reminds them of a time way back when they were at the same place is an extremely rewarding experience - it’s what keeps me publishing things online.

Sunset over the Sutro Bath ruins

The Dark Side of the Product: Collectorism

No discussion of the Why of photography would be complete without a mention of the Why Not. On the product side of things, there is a strongly negative motive many amateurs follow that I call collectorism. This is a tendency to desire, to covet the product above all else. “Nevermind what the world is really like, I want a photograph of the Grand Canyon at sunset with a big thundercell right over the North Rim.” You see it everywhere, and it isn’t limited just to amateurs like myself. I know about and try to avoid collectorism because I, like most beginning photographers, was once firmly in its grips.

I once ran a blog that published a daily photograph. Along with two other photographers, I put an image up for nearly two years straight. Every. Day. This was crushing my photography because everything became a numbers game. I needed seven images a week and got out about every other week to do some serious shooting. I started to think about what images would be popular, when and where I could get them. When the light wouldn’t cooperate, I was very frustrated.

A new dawn

While the motivation to produce can be a good thing, as an example of the dangers of collectorism I’ll relate the following anecdote. The photograph above of a spring sunrise creeping around the massive, granite shoulder of El Capitan is one of my favorite products. It’s on my wall as my prized print - 40 by 60 inches on canvas, it was a joy to post-process and the act of photographing it was wonderful (see more on the process below). I had spent the pre-dawn on the valley floor, finding a spot along the Merced still wreathed in fog, shooting the moon over cathedral ramparts of the southern wall. I decided to make a run south to catch the sun from Tunnel View.

Huge drops of dew hung on every pine needle, catching the sun beams that were racing across the face of the valley like lamplight cast around an opening door and onto a dark and waiting floor. Birds, sensing the foment of the morning was underway, circled in the thermals, silhoutted against a surging bridalveil. I was grinning from ear to ear, knowing the photograph would be great. Then I overheard one photographer speaking to another. The two didn’t know one another, the older was earlier on the learning curve than the younger who was holding court.

The older said, “This is beautiful, I’m glad I came.”

To which the younger replied, “It’s okay, but I really prefer clouds in the sky for my photos. I was here before and there were clouds.”

I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation but to say that no repentance for this blatant act of Collecterism came from the younger. He was there to make a photograph, not of the morning as it stood, not of what he could find, but a photograph as though it were a line item on a list:

Yosemite from Tunnel View. Swollen Bridalveil, gorgeous light, perfect moment with birds and the glory of a Sierra morning. And clouds in the sky. Must be clouds.

Of course he was disappointed when the world didn’t line up all the elements he hoped to collect. One wonders what else was on the list of demands. A thunderstorm? A rainbow? A tornado? Unicorns?! I will also stake the claim that his product (if he even took a photograph) suffered for it.

So, even though the world has hundreds of millions of photographs of the Grand Canyon, of Yosemite, of New York City, we haven't yet seen your vision (and if you are like me, you probably can't sit still until it has). Photograph your world and generate a beautiful product and avoid becoming the collector. Strive to make the best product you know how, every time. The personal value of photographs to the photographer isn't the only reason that the act of photography is so important. The second and, I will argue, more important reason to photograph is the effect that simple act of tripping the shutter has on the photographers worldview.

We are killers

The Process.

Since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the photographic process. There is something so satisfying and final in the capture of an image. As long as I live, I will not be able to shake the memory of my father's Nikon F3, it's battery grip and 28mm f/2.8 in my hands. There must have been hundreds of times I used that camera as a child, but what I remember best is traipsing around the beech forest behind a family friend's house one late summer, trying to make a few images of late afternoon light cascading through the canopy. The forest was in an arroyo behind the house and, the slope being covered by a thick and slippery blanket of leaves and fungus, one had to use a rope tied off to a massive maple trunk to shimmy down the hill to the creekbed. Somewhere in my excitement to return from my photographic sojourn, I lost a small part of the camera on the hill. I was devastated, it being a very valuable camera and fearing I'd never be allowed to use it again!

And how I loved using a camera. The snap of the shutter, the whir of the motor drive, the way the split prism drifted in and out of phase when I twisted the focus ring, and, most of all, the way using it could connect the dew-soaked moments in the woods with those spent in the basement looking at projected Ektachrome glowing forth in saturated blues and greens. Slides were a brilliant window opened onto the past, through whose glass all light and shadow and time froze: our faces, the landscape tattooed in garish color upon the silver of the screen.

And then there was the slide-show smell and the slide-show sound. Months after a vacation, the little boxes of processed film sorted by Mom and Dad into round carousels that clacked and rattled in their cardboard sarcophagi, the screen would come from the closet, a thin tube that emitted a screeching report upon unfolding. There we sat in the basement of my boyhood home, perfumed as it was with the ozone of the blazing projector bulb and the sickly sweet of the hot celluloid. Clickity-clack and a fresh image reeled into place, blazing upon the screen the reds of geraniums, the gold of the beach and the cerulean of the sky. The viscera of the family slide show, my friends, is something we have indeed lost.

Andromeda and Sequoia
Andromeda and Sequoia

In its place we now have the photoblog and gallery website, the social media photo sharing of Instagram, Flickr, 500px, Facebook, Google+, Smugmug, Zenfolio; we now have the smartphone, iPad, laptop and HDTV in place of those screeching silver screens and blinding projector lamps. What we have lost in secondary experience we have replaced with a torrent of new opportunities for sharing and viewing photographs.

What hasn't changed for me is the moments with the camera in my hands. The body and lenses change faster than ever before, but for all that, when I have a camera in hand, I am still that little boy tripping over himself in the beech forest to make an image. The camera is an extension of my curiosity about the natural world, my aspirations to document it, and my hopes that a photograph can live up to being as beautiful as I see the world to be.

If you are like me, the camera is a means and an end - it is a crutch used to travel and explore and live and yet it is also a reason to do those things in the first place.

If you're like me, you photograph because the process feels a bit like breathing: you can go without for a short while, but every day without makes you itch all the more.

The act of photography, for me, is natural. It goes without saying that I should wake up at 4 AM and drive 50 miles north to some windswept beach and wait for the sunrise to take a few photographs. A good friend once came with me to a beach in Big Sur early one October morn. Cold and tired, I think at some point she must have wondered what the point was, because sometime halfway through blue hour she stopped and said, “Now I get it, this is like meditating, it’s so relaxing!”

The process of making photographs from start to finish, from shutter to blog is a meditative, relaxing and rewarding experience. I have gone (and will go again, undoubtedly) to great lengths, hiking, climbing with the expectation to make an image and have come away empty-handed. The joy of getting my feet moving, of putting the tripod somewhere interesting is rewarding even when it means that I come away without a product. If I had to give my younger self a single lesson it would be to focus on the process and not to worry about the product. The product takes care of itself if the process is a labor of love.

Two lights through the darkness

The Dark Side of the Process: Gear.

Now, I should say a word or two about gear. I said I am still fervently in love with the moments where I have the camera in my hands, but this isn't just gadget lust. A great tool is a pleasure to use, and the cameras I am lucky enough to use are really excellent - never the most expensive, never the biggest, but always up to the task at hand.

Too much energy Waaaaay too much energy amongst hobbiest photographers is focused on gear, typically on pro gear. The professional camera bodies are most often the object of the greatest gear lust because they are beautiful and powerful and very expensive and, I suspect, tangled up amongst amateurs with some idealized notion of what life would be like as a professional photographer. There will be other chances to write about equipment and what the most important considerations are in the area of camera purchases, but for now let's suffice it to say that your feet and your brain are your most important photographic tools. Offer me a chance to tour the world with a sketchbook and a pencil or sit at home in front of the computer with $100,000 in gear on the shelf and I bet you can guess which one I would choose. The process is enhanced by good equipment only to the extent that a lesser camera would present a barrier to making one image or another.

These last two points have been hammered home again and again by more accomplished photographers than myself, but they bear repeating. The world has too many images of lens charts and brick walls - as a group, we should spend more time thinking about and making photographs and less time on message boards and spec charts.

Making a photograph demands the photographer be an observer, participant and documentarian simultaneously. It changes forever how he or she sees their environment. Photography forces me to think constantly and critically about the world and my place in it. It causes me to consider my environmental impact and to support groups that protect the things I love to photograph.

Of Obstacles, Portals and Waves
The Pacific
The Pacific

Despite the effort of climbing the hill on that southern Michigan summer day, despite the missing rewind lever from atop Dad's F3, and despite the gorgeous light, I surely came away from that creekbed without the beautiful images I had imagined making. Instead, I emerged from that clover-carpeted and sandy grove with a love for the process of trying to make a successful image and a starting point on a life-long path toward learning how to get better. I would not, even now, trade a library of great images for that process.

In conclusion

As avid, amateur photographers, we should all ask ourselves the question Why? and, similarly, that we should be able to answer that question with a resounding Because I love it! Live deeply, breath with your eyes as well as your lungs and get out there into the wide, wonderful world and make a few special images.

Why do you photograph? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section ...