What’s Your Photography For?

Leaf Warning

Sometimes, in photography as in life, the questions are just as important as the answers. So, with that in mind, think this one over for a second: What is your photography for?

I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of “What kind of photographer are you?“, though I think that’s also a useful question to ask. We can think of this in terms of utility, obviously. That is to say, we can ask to what use our photos will be put (would we like to see them on our own walls, or in a museum, or on the glossy pages of a magazine?). There’s a tradition of this in craft, from the earliest human history to the Bauhaus* and beyond. And that, too, is valid.

But there’s another, equally important, sense in which we need to ask the “What’s it for?” question. That is: What is my work for? What does it affirm? It’s a point of pride among some photographers to let you know that there are certain lines they won’t cross. They’ll only shoot film, or only with prime lenses, or only portraiture, but only in the style of a certain photographer or school thereof. They’re very quick, in other words, to tell you what their photography negates, ignores, or works against. Each photographer becomes his or her own Groucho Marx.**

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with not wanting to shoot certain ways, or to sidestep certain trends. Our “look,” such as it is, comes from a complex set of variables that come into play each time we frame the shot, and the things we choose not to do each time are hardly the least of those considerations. We cannot, and should not, stop there, however.

It’s all well and good to oppose something, but that fades after a while or becomes a pose of sorts. On the other hand, if your work is an extension or expression of your values, both photographer and viewer can sense, I think, that the photo is grounded in something. Our purpose in our craft, as with our lives, changes with time and experience, so I don’t think there’s a single purpose, or a one-size-fits-all definitive answer. Instead, it’s something we need to revisit from time to time.

Photograph with a sense of purpose. It doesn’t even¬†have to be the same purpose each and every time, but there should be something there. Doing that, and thinking it over every now and again, is more difficult than nihilism (at least in the short term), but questioning your motivation, even if it’s as simple as being a better photographer today than you were yesterday,¬†gives you a touchstone when your inspiration flags or life throws you a curveball, and can also help your work to express depth and sincerity.

That’s my two cents’ worth (adjusted for inflation). What do you think?

*Walter Gropius et al., not Peter Murphy et al.

** “No matter what it is or who commenced it/I’m against it.” (Horse Feathers)

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