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Still Life 1980 by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I recently uploaded my entire digitized photography collection, either native digital or scanned negatives and prints, to Amazon Cloud for back-up purposes.

At the end of the weeks (literally) of uploading, I found I had stored over 120,000 photographs.

That’s a lot of pictures.

How many of them are actually meaningful?

It’s a very hard question to answer and one that goes to heart of what it is to be a photographer.

It’s become very clear to me recently that the value of my own work is very closely tied to its function as a record of events in my life. This puzzled me at first. After all, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade working on both my knowledge and my technique. I’ve accumulated a lot of equipment – way more than I really need, in truth – and taken by far the bulk of those 120,000 plus pictures during this time. I’ve been consciously trying to take what one might call artistic pictures. Pictures I felt sure, when I was taking them, would become the prized jewels.

This never happened. In fact, many of my more consciously arty photographs displease me even as they often get praise from others. Why? Because they are consciously arty. I’m emulating, not creating.

That’s not to say that many of the photographs I treasure don’t emulate the work of others. Frequently they do. But they were not created with emulation in mind. Still, emulation is unavoidable. If I find that I’ve uploaded 120,000 photographs as an individual, just think of the millions, billions, trillions of photographs by other people. Inevitably there are going to be multiple duplicates of subject and style. Many multiples in truth. Very, very little of what I photograph is going to be unique.

So that brings me back – what is meaningful?

Association. That really all that counts. I have plenty of photographs I can pin to a particular time, place or mood. If the picture actively enhances the association, then I regard it as a success. This quality has an oblique relationship to conventional artistic aesthetics. If the aesthetic quality of the image consolidates memory or mood, then the aesthetic is an integral part of what makes the picture successful. But occasionally – in fact, much more than occasionally – the aesthetic quality is irrelevant.

Irrelevant as regards my own work, that is. Not so in regard to the work of others whose work is inevitably devoid of association or, at the very best, marginally associative. Associative through being at the same place and time, or by photographing subjects that have a strong innate bond.  In these cases, aesthetics becomes more important as a framework for judging. As indeed it is for others looking at my own work.

This explains the often paradoxical situation where others may regard my own work as uninteresting whereas I find it captivating – or the reverse for that matter. This conundrum is true for all photographers, indeed is true for all artists. As an artist, you need to be aware of this, particularly if you are making art as a product for others.

I don’t do that – make product, that is. My photography is solely for my own pleasure. Ultimately, it’s simply down to circumstance and coincidence when a photograph that is deeply meaningful for me becomes meaningful for others. This is something to always hold in mind. It contextualizes criticism and allows you to remain true to your own vision in the face of indifference or dislike.

The above photograph? Taken in 1980, at a gathering of friends. Wholly associative and deeply emotional. Precious. But no one else needs to feel that for it to be the success that it is.

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