Thursday, January 9, 2014

Visionary: Why Photography?

Photography has become a default artistic medium because it appears relatively easy to approach. It isn’t. It’s the most difficult of the arts. A quick look at Flickr will illustrate the point that good photographs are uncommon. Good photographs aren’t created with technical expertise: they’re created through an understanding of how us humans experience and interpret the four dimensions of existence: depth, breadth, height, and time.

John Fowles succinctly summarized the problem that the democratization of accessible cameras has caused. He calls it the "common illusion" of photography:
No one thinks to become a good writer by buying a typewriter, or a composer by acquiring a piano. Yet a camera, so the illusion runs, turns the crassest possessor into a potential Cartier-Bresson. The reasons is simple: a camera records what one sees, and that is as closely personal thing as a belief or an opinion. It is territory, in the bird sense: not to be trodden on, doubted, ignored by others.
—John Fowles, Land, p. xvii.

Choosing photography shouldn’t be an idle decision. There are many other art forms which may be better suited to your expression of self. Sketching, writing, painting, music—all provide potentially more fulfilling avenues of capturing what’s in your consciousness. Despite their appearance of having a more difficult learning curve over photography, the other arts have a very distinct advantage: they can be done on your own time, at your own pace, and in isolation. Photography is a double edged sword: it can capture a unique moment, but the photographer has to be there to do that. Moreover, because the photographer doesn’t get to choose the time at which a moment occurs, he doesn’t have the option of “not feeling creative,” or otherwise not being in the mood. Other arts allow inspiration to strike as it does—photography does not.

The first question is always whether photography is the right medium for you to use to express your thought. It might be, and it might not be. The answer to that question starts with you determining—for yourself—what interests you. To what images are you repeatedly drawn, and what images don’t interest you at all. After you’ve made that initial cull, it’s vital to determine why you like certain images. The process of refining your skill is one of exclusion: eliminating those things which don’t presently engage you, and giving more of your time and attention to the things that do. Those interests will organically change, but that will happen naturally. The first step is to engage with what you know, be honest in that evaluation, and make the commitment to develop that to which you are drawn.

The next step is to engage in the process because you are drawn to it. Your interest is not random: photography has grabbed you, and there are reasons for it. Developing that interest is a worthy pursuit, and worthy of the investment of time and energy it demands. To quote Walt Whitman:
O ME! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;        
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
 
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
Whitman, Leaves of Grass.