The pur­pose of a pho­to­graph

Why did you make that pho­to­graph?” he asked.

Some­time around the last week of Octo­ber I found myself in a nearly hour-long con­ver­sa­tion with a friend about pho­tog­ra­phy. At some point, I spot­ted a low fog out­side in our garden, with the evening sun­light shin­ing off it, and I rushed out­side to make a pho­to­graph. About five min­utes later I returned, having made one pho­to­graph that, while not fully sat­is­fy­ing to me, was good enough for a casual share on Insta­gram. And then he sprung the ques­tion: why did you make that pho­to­graph?”

For a brief moment, I was taken aback. This was some­thing I had never thought of. I have been making pho­tographs for years, but in all this time I have never asked myself why I was doing it. At some point it had come to feel like second nature. I did it because I loved to. Or because I found some­thing inter­est­ing. Or because I wanted to make mem­o­ries. Or because some­thing I saw evoked cer­tain emo­tions on an artis­tic level. Or because I had seen some­thing that I believed not many would have. But these were only on the sur­face. The fun­da­men­tal reason was always because I loved to and so long as I had a camera, I spoke in terms of pho­tographs because it was a lan­guage I could speak.

And yet, although I did my best to explain to him that day why I did it, why I went out all of a sudden to make a pho­to­graph, I have since thought a lot more about it. What fol­lows is a struc­tured pre­sen­ta­tion of the notes I have scrib­bled on this topic in my trusty note­book, over the past two weeks.

Once again, on the sur­face, the pur­pose” of every pho­to­graph is dif­fer­ent. This is mostly a per­sonal issue, one between the pho­tog­ra­pher and his sub­ject, whether it is another person, an object, a part of the earth or what­ever else. There is that which is, that which exists. One might call it real­ity. To me, the pur­pose of a pho­to­graph is to take away a piece of exis­tence, a piece of that which is, to keep with me for­ever. This spans time and space, two broad dri­vers for any artist: the intent, deep down, is often to create or cap­ture some­thing against time or in space, whether a paint­ing, a piece of music and so on. Inter­est­ingly enough, these are also what inter­est me deeply as a physi­cist.

How­ever, this brings in another ques­tion. What moti­vates some­one to want to take away a piece of exis­tence to keep with them­selves in the first place? It could be a desire to cat­a­logue some­thing, an intent to cher­ish some­thing, or to simply appre­ci­ate it. All of this boils down to the same fun­da­men­tal moti­va­tion: we do it because we like it or we like some­thing about it. In the spe­cific case of a pho­to­graph, this could be the light, the geom­e­try, the tex­ture, or, deeper still, a jux­ta­po­si­tion, or a rep­re­sen­ta­tion or per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of ideas and so on.

While, in my rea­son­ing, I may have seem­ingly returned to square one, I feel I did gain some new insight on the way. The ques­tion, why did you make this pho­to­graph?”, to me, is no longer a mean­ing­ful one by any mea­sure. A pho­to­graph is made. Full stop. The real ques­tion is, what does this pho­to­graph do to you? If it is one that the pho­tog­ra­pher chooses to rep­re­sent their work or them­selves with, then it clearly stands for some­thing to them and it means some­thing. Does it have sim­i­lar weight to you? Does it make you feel some­thing? Does it mean as much to you, even if it does not mean the exact same thing it does to the pho­tog­ra­pher? Does it make you realise an emo­tion, or does it unearth a memory, or does it oth­er­wise bring some­thing forth in your mind? If so, won­der­ful. If not, there are most cer­tainly other pho­tographs out there that will, and other pho­tog­ra­phers whose work will prove to be mean­ing­ful to you. Or, at the very least, you might make one such pho­to­graph your­self if you keep trying.

Won­der­ing why a pho­to­graph was made is a point­less exer­cise. Make the pho­to­graph instead. It comes down to a little plan­ning and set­ting up at times, but more often it is a matter of slow­ing down, think­ing, being inten­tional while not shun­ning spon­tane­ity and making a pho­to­graph, not just shoot­ing” one. It might seem like seman­tics, but I per­son­ally asso­ciate the term shoot­ing” with snap­shots and making” with pho­tographs, their pri­mary dif­fer­ences lying in intent: whereas a snap­shot is for memory or curios­ity, a pho­to­graph is driven by the desire to make art and often, but not always, has some plan­ning behind it and every part of it is inten­tional.

Saul Leiter, a pho­tog­ra­pher I greatly admire, comes to mind: I don’t have a phi­los­o­phy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pic­tures. My pho­tographs are the tini­est part of what I see that could be pho­tographed. They are frag­ments of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties.” I do not think there needs to be a pur­pose or a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a pho­to­graph. Like real­ity itself, a pho­to­graph just is. Pur­pose should not drive pho­tog­ra­phy; light, tex­ture, geom­e­try, ideas and emo­tions should. And, as a con­clud­ing word, I think it is worth men­tion­ing that this approach should unar­guably extend every­where else too, even out­side of pho­tog­ra­phy: do some­thing pri­mar­ily because you love it.