I read a post a couple of months ago called “Why Photography?” by Steve Coleman. The same day, Brian Miller had a post up called “Why Make Photographs?”
If it came from a non-photographer, it would’ve drawn the same response that I get when someone tells me they don’t like to read, or that they “just don’t like the taste of food.”* In short: WTF? But these weren’t non-photographers. Maybe it was something in the water?
At any rate, the same question, posed the same day, by two photographers whose work I respect and enjoy got me to thinking (and thinking; as you can see, it’s two months later, and the question’s still very much on my mind). You may have asked yourself that question as well, with the inflection changing depending on your mood. If you’re not yet a photographer, or just getting started, the question comes out, “Why make Photographs?” or “Why Photography?” As in, “Why this thing, and not some other?” How come I’m a photographer and not, say, a bassist (easy — no hand/eye coordination to speak of), singer (can’t carry a tune in a bucket) or painter (the less said about that, the better)? I could probably have stuck with bass, or found a vocal coach, or gone to art school, but I didn’t. I did, however, pick up a camera, and found it very difficult to put it down. Sometimes you find your medium, or maybe you just meet it halfway. But if it speaks to you — and allows you to speak through it — it’s hard to ignore that.
So then you’ve done this photography thing for a bit, and you like it enough to do more than take snapshots. The question then becomes, “Why Make Photos?” Somewhere along the line, the relationship has deepened and you’ve decided that you and the camera are more than just friends. You start to move beyond the ability of the camera to simply document, and you decide that maybe you’d like to try using it to interact with, or respond to, not only what’s in front of you, but also what’s starting to show itself in your mind’s eye. There’s an old expression that when you’ve got a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Well, spend enough time behind the camera, and if you really throw yourself into it — you really start to look deeply at things, really start seeing — before too long, everything starts to look like a photograph.
Then you hit a wall. Sometimes it’s after a bad day of shooting, or a bad month (or more), where it seems like the inspiration’s gone and the world’s gone flat. Now all of a sudden, the question is “Why Make Photos?” or “Why Photography?” (whereupon you may shake your fist at the sky, your camera, or both). It happens (or it will, if it hasn’t yet; trust me on this). When it does, it’s helpful to revisit those first two versions of the questions. Revisit your motivation, revisit your joy, revisit doing the work just for the sake of it. The frustration will pass, will turn on a dime or a shadow or an interesting bit of geometry or eye-popping color.
Of course, your mileage may vary. What I’ve written about is my experience, and yours (the experience, the motivation, and all that goes with it) could well be very different than mine. And that’s okay. I could also quote at length from both of the essays mentioned above, but I won’t. Read them — and quite a bit else on both Steve and Brian’s blogs — for yourself. It’ll be time well-spent. And in the meantime, what about you? Why do you make photographs?
*Someone actually said this to me once, and I’m still agog over it.