It’s a slow day at work and I’ve been drifting through the photography websites, once again marveling at the ubiquity of style found in popular photography. It’s so hard to stand out as original. Paradoxically, many of the most technically accomplished photographs suffer even more since they often emulate a look that has become familiar through over-promotion of similar appearing photographs. I’ve noted this before in similar posts on this site and so there’s no surprise here. But it got me thinking about my own photography in a different way from before.
Most often the beginning photographer, to a large extent unaware of any technical or aesthetic rules, takes pictures of things that are meaningful at the time. Family, friends, places visited, vacations and celebrations. The resulting pictures are resonant with the photographer but are frequently not in the least bit interesting to an emotionally detached observer. Hence the stifled yawns at the projected slide shows of old or the smart phone photo collections of new.
The photographer, as he or she journeys into the art, begins to pick up rules and tips. All designed to lift the photograph away from the personal and into a more universal set of expectations. It’s this process that teaches the photographer technique and control of the camera and the judgement required to produce such appealing work. So you get there. You can produce brightly vibrant, silky toned, entrancingly sharp, meltingly blurred, rule-of-thirds compliant mini-masterpieces. And you look at them and say – this means nothing.
Not nothing if you are seeking to sell these images or your skills as a photographer. They are the line and hook that draws custom. They also draw appreciation from the many others who too have reached or are close to reaching this level of accomplishment, acquiring likes or competition wins. All meaningful in their own way, but just how meaningful is that way?
For some, a great deal I suspect. And why not? But, me, no – there’s something lacking and, again, it relates to that lack of personality. As in personal personality. That’s the nothing. So I’m going backwards. I’m taking pictures of places, people and things that resonate with me. Places I visit often. Places I find contemplative or stimulating, often over and over again. Thus over the past year I’ve been collecting a lot of pictures of the same thing. The art of the picture, if art it is, is in reconstructing the dominant emotion I felt at the time. That can vary considerably and is a product of both my internal mood and the world I observe. It’s meant moving away from certain styles and techniques that leave me cold.
My embrace of film is partly because I find the texture of film photography to be more organic and emotionally resonant than the results obtained by digital means. Partly this is tactile. Simply handling film imparts a sense of artifact that is lacking in digital up until the relatively rare stage of making a print. But even then, comparing prints from digital to prints from film, there is a strangely alluring almost-mystical quality about the film print that is not present in the digital image. For me, anyway.
Some of this is historic. I grew up with film. All of the most emotional moving pictorial records of my youth are on film. So there’s an inbuilt bias right from the beginning. I spent a lot of time denying or belittling this bias during the years I threw myself wholeheartedly into the world of digital photography. I should not have. I allowed myself to be seduced by the new technology and bought into the prevailing wisdom that film was dead. A medium for has-beens.
Let’s say that today I am happy to be a has-been.