Photography is a time machine that only works if you make the image now, and only if you view it later.
Some say photography is — or should be — an art. For me, photography is not an art. It’s what’s outside the camera — nature, life, architecture, whatever — that’s art, and photography is capturing that. I’ve rarely felt like an artist when handling my camera; it’s always felt like more of a tool to me — and not an artist’s tool like a paintbrush or musical instrument but a precision machine for recording a moment in time.
I admire artistically creative photographers, but rarely seek to emulate them. At least 95% of my images are to record a scene as a record of an occurrence, or to communicate to another what something looked like.
The singular moment in my life that led to me being a photographer was looking through some of my Dad’s old photos and seeing ice cubes in a glass of Kool-Aid. “They’re still frozen!” I remember exclaiming aloud. (Video can have a similar purpose, but requires far more time to record and view, not to mention storage space and bandwidth in the digital age.) I realized each photo is something like a time machine, a portal to a different era, even if it was only a few weeks ago — but only if someone recorded the moment.
If I take a passing snapshot of a house, and then that house burns down — or is taken by eminent domain to build a super-highway — then my photo is a record of its former existence. If I record an image of my toddler and then she ages, my photo is the time machine to her toddlerhood, and will be as long as the photo exists.
Much of this point of view arose from two circumstances: (1) my early experience with photography was watching my Dad record the moments in our lives with his old Minolta film cameras, and (2) my first real training was at a newspaper where the whole point was to accurately portray a scene or tell a story. (This is not to say that photojournalists can’t be artists; many of them are. I was not.)
My kind of photography is not as emotionally demanding (or as evocative) as art. And it’s rarely as physically demanding as photojournalism. It also doesn’t require technical perfection like you might expect in other photography niches: portrait, architectural, or event photography.
But it can still be demanding.
1. It requires metadata — dates, times, locations, explanations, etc. — to accompany every image. The example I gave above of the house photo isn’t worth anything if I didn’t also record the location and the date. Without that information, it’s just a snapshot of a random house. Nearly pointless.
2. It requires organization of the resulting files. If you have 10,000 images in your computer (or stuffed in shoe boxes), and they’re in no particular order with no way of finding a specific image, then that image is worse than pointless — unless you accidentally stumble across it at some point. (See Organizing Photos.)
3. It also requires consistency. Taking the example of my toddler, the photographic record of her young life is more telling, more informative, more categorically useful if I regularly record those images over a long period of time. One snapshot of her at age 2 is much less useful (to me) than a continuous stream of images throughout a year of her life.
(Some might argue with the above point, saying — correctly — that just a handful of images over someone’s life will be more emotionally evocative, if only for their rarity, than a continuous stream which can sometimes seem boring or very similar. But remember, “emotionally evocative” isn’t my goal — though it occasionally happens.)
4. And despite what I said above, it does require some degree of technical proficiency. If your eyes see a well-lit subject and focus on them, but your camera records a blurry or dark or out-of-focus image, then you have not recorded the moment for a future trip back in time. Especially indoors, where so many of our memorable moments occur, recording an accurate representation of the moment can be challenging and might require more expensive equipment.
This isn’t to say that I’ve locked myself in a box and thus can only take one kind of photo, or only record images in one way. Any time I feel artistic, I’m free to try to express that in a photograph. If I’m called upon to shoot a family portrait, that’s okay too. I don’t believe in niches — at least for myself. If you like focusing on one type of image and do nothing else, that’s fine. For you.
Related entry: 7 Types of Photographers
By the way, it really bugs me that two of the three words in my title have “ph” twice, instead of the better “f”. Apparently the use of “ph” for the “f” sound in English derives from Greek. And both photography and philosophy are Greek-derived words. Still, this is 21st Century American English. Surely we can say “My Fotografy Filosofy”… (See future entry: Phixing English: Let’s Start With The “ph”)