Why do we take pictures?
It’s a simple question. But I think that the answers to this question are as many and varied as there are people on this planet. We each have our own reasons, but I also think that there has to be some common thread, otherwise it would not be such a universal phenomenon.
I guess the first question that needs to be asked is this: What is it about the still image that captures our attention?
Could it be that it is the process of stopping time, allowing us to examine a scene in detail, consciously appreciating all the things that are normally only “noticed” on a subconscious level? When watching a video, the scene is in a constant state of change, no two moments are the same, and the limits of our perception only allow us to “see” one small part of each scene at a time. But with a still image, the eye has the luxury of time to explore and see not only the forest, but the individual trees as well. A moment in time has been frozen, preserved forever, but also never to come again.
I know that for me, I am always amazed at how much detail is captured in a single still image. Details that I was not able to notice at the time I created the image, due to either the distractions of sound and motion, or just the fact that we are all limited by the amount of information we can take in and process in any given period of time.
Maybe it’s a way for us to make a statement that “I was here. I existed” The proof is in the pictures. We document our lives, our experiences, not necessarily for the purpose of sharing them with others, but more as mental cue cards to help us recall with greater clarity, the experiences of our lives. Memory is malleable, and over time details become lost, or changed. And what we remember may not actually be what “was”.
In essence, pictures help us remember. They are the closest we have yet come to true time travel, to allow us to go back and experience the feelings we had, and remember.
We take pictures of things that are important to us. Family gatherings, and other “life events” such as birthdays, weddings, and the birth and growth of a child. For many this is the extent of their picture making, documenting the good times, the major moments.
But for those of us that takes things a step further, those of us that integrate this activity of recording our daily lives, we photographers want to capture not just the watershed moments, but also the many other, usually smaller yet still significant moments where something stuck us. Where we connected with a feeling, or were impacted by something we saw.
This type of shooting is more than just a documentary of our lives, but rather and emotional journal. Capturing a mood, or a feeling, and attempting to express that feeling in an image. I say “Attempt” because this seems to be the most difficult of all things to accomplish. I my past ten years of photography, I can’t lay claim to ever really capturing a feeling.
Not even once.
We each carry our own filter through which we see the world, and the same image can speak in many different ways to different people. It all depends on each individuals own personal frame of reference, how their life experiences up to that point have colored their filter. An image that means very little to me can have a profound effect on another person if it strikes some sort of personal chord with them. The opposite also holds true. An image that I absolutely treasure can (and usually does) hold no interest to others.
When I first took up photography I was only concerned about documenting as accurately as possible the scenes in front of me. This lead me down a long path of learning the equipment and techniques, the real “nuts and bolts” type of things related to image making.
After 3-4 years I had pretty much figured out, through some trial and a lot of error, how to document an image. Perfect focus, sharpness, exposure, they were all there. Technically I had figured out how to take a picture. But my images started to feel stale.
In looking back into my photo archives I noticed that some of my more early images seemed to be better than what I had been recently producing, and upon examining them further I came to the realization that while it is important to learn the technical side of image making, it is equally important to shed that analytical skin and step into a more instinctive style to truly progress as an image maker. You have to know when to leave the nuts and bolts behind and trust your instincts in reaching towards a more ethereal goal; The capture of a feeling.
When you first start taking pictures you just flail around. Then you learn the technical side and this allows you to more consistently capture what you intended. But once you are able to do that every time, then you should stop worrying so much about the technical things, by that time they will be deeply enough ingrained to be there even when you are not conscious of them. Just forget about all the technical stuff, and start flailing again. Shoot on instinct. The fact that you have learned the technical side will ensure you don’t stray too far off the path, but giving yourself the freedom to have fun again and “go nuts” will add a new refreshing dimension to your images.
We often say “I took a picture”, and in most cases that is exactly what we have done. We have documented something as it was. But what is to me, the highest form of art, is when one is able to cross the threshold between taking pictures, and capturing emotions. And never worry about weather or not people like your images. After all, it is a subjective thing. So long as you are true to your own vision, and you enjoy the results then you can be sure that you are on the correct path.
Our experiences make up the music of our lives, and at least for me, photographs are the notes.