The purpose of a photograph
9 November 2016
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.