Over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the “act” of photography – the process by which a person finds, approaches, composes and photographs their subject. In many ways I’m less interested about the resulting photo – it could be argued the photograph as object is so ubiquitous as to not be interesting anymore – just the act of taking it.
A lot of this came out of disliking the way “Photographers” were dismissing Instagram and photos on Facebook, or the way people who took photos at gigs with their phones would be sneered at, both by photographers who knew the photos would be terrible and by gig purists who felt they weren’t experiencing the performance properly.
I do think most of the photos people share online are rubbish. And I do think those who take crappy photos at gigs are doing something wrong. But I don’t think the motivation for doing so is worth dismissing so quickly.
I’ve done a fair amount of gig and event photography. I found it a really useful learning experience, shooting moving subjects in dark rooms with flashing spotlights. If forces you to take control of the camera, get into Manual mode and work within some pretty harsh constraints. But it also taught me something else – how to engage with the subject through the camera. As I wrote in July:
I learned how to shoot at gigs by going the Supersonic music festival in 2006 with a fully manual camera and four rolls of film. I budgeted I had three shots per band, so I had to find those decisive moments. I would first watch the band play, get a sense of their music and how they moved with it. If I was looking to photography a guitarist I’d understand his behaviour, see how he moved when different sections of the song kicked in. I’d get to the stage where I was comfortable in predicting their actions and then, after a few trial runs, I’d take my shot. Nine times out of ten it worked.
It’s often interested me how similar this is to hunting, both in terms of stalking the prey though the eyepiece and then taking the “shot”. I’ve never been interested in hunting but as a photographer I think I can begin to understand the intense connection that must develop between a hunter and his target. Maybe connection is the wrong word, but the hunter builds an understanding of how that creature moves, what its personality is, that must be established in order to make the kill. The same applies to a photography. We must build a relationship with our subject, and understanding of it, be it a brick wall or a professional model. There’s a joke that a good wedding photographer doesn’t need to be technically proficient or have a good eye – they just have to be good with people. In other words they are good at quickly and efficiently building relationships with their subjects. That understanding can raise an otherwise mediocre photo to new heights.
So, can this help us see what’s happening when an untrained, naive photographer points their light-recording device at a subject? Here’s what I think is going on. (Warning – much projection and little empirical evidence follows)
People don’t just take photos of anything. I’ve often had strange looks or confused questions from members of the public who’ve spotted me photographing a rusty nail or interestingly broken brick. The question “why are you photographing that?” doesn’t just betray a lack of imagination – I think it’s a genuine inquiry as to what kind of relationship I hope to develop with that rusty nail. And to what purpose. Because when they take a photo they do so because the subject matters to them on an intimate level – babies, holidays, parties, etc.
I don’t know if this is an instinctive thing or something we’ve been conditioned into doing, but it seems to be a very important part of why people take photos. But this equation can be rearranged. If a person takes a photo of something because have a relationship with it, then taking a photo of something you don’t have a relationship with can create that relationship.
This, I think, is why you see the waves of flashguns popping in stadiums. It can’t be about getting a good image, impossible when you use a flash in those circumstances. It comes from a desire to connect with that event on a personal, emotional level.
There’s also something going on on a creative level. Creativity is often lauded but I think the effects on the creator are pretty unexamined. To create something, be it a painting, a table or a baby, is a pretty powerful thing that raises us up as humans. Creating a photograph might be absurdly easy now and visual imagery might be ubiquitous to the point of tedium, but that doesn’t necessarily reduce the impact of what informs that act of creation – the discovery, the approach, the composition, the moment of exposure.
When we take a photo of something important to us we’re trying to take a great photo, obviously, but I think subconsciously there’s this desire to engage with the subject matter by creating something out of it. Something is happening and we want to be involved. We can cheer, we can shake hands, we can smile, we can create. To make art about something in the world is to involve yourself with it. To take a photo of something is to do the same.
This afternoon I was chatting with Fiona about blogging and why people write the things we do. Some friends have gone travelling and Fi was wondering how long they’d keep up their quite detailed blog posts before the acclimatised and didn’t need to write them anymore. Right now everything is new and strange and documenting it helps make sense of it all. This idea of processing-by-writing is something I do a lot of. By turing my ideas into an essay or narrative I process them into something coherent. I compose my thoughts. I frame my ideas. I bring things into focus. You can see where I’m going with this.
As I write I’m aware that my focus is narrow and I’m missing multitudes, but I’m happy to keep ploughing for now to see where it takes me. This moment of photography feels important.
- Notes from If Wet 5
- Thinks Summary