Let’s talk about this. Why did you make your last photograph? Was it because there was an object or person or place that moved you on some weird level of emotion? Was this moment so complex that words could never be formed so a photograph was the only way to express the fleeting beauty of…whatever? Photography, at it’s core, is a shockingly simple conduit for conveying extraordinarily complex ideas. A photo is an unusual thing, really; being a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world with it’s very purpose being intended to transcend it’s own physical limitations. Once you add in a heavy dose of yourself by means of creative expression and you have what some people might very well call “art”.
But wait…this wasn’t what we began talking about. Murder. Yes, that’s it. What is it that is repeatedly stabbing the art form of photography in broad daylight for all of us to see yet do nothing? I asked the question earlier about why you made your last photograph and now it’s time for you to answer. Since I can’t hear you…I’ll make a guess. It was because you could. Likely you make the last picture on your phone or camera not because you were MOVED but rather because you were ABLE to do so. I’ll admit, I’m right there with you at times. My phone goes everywhere I go and normally so does my camera. Do the majority of the pictures I make with either one serve any purpose? Nope. So let’s move forward with a sense of mutual empathy knowing that we both, to whatever degree, are small cogs in a larger creatively homicidal machine; an invisible contraption whose only purpose is to unknowingly scratch at the foundations of photography until the entire structure comes crashing down or worse, becomes forgotten all together.
The modern idea of photography is overwhelmingly digital. This in and of itself is a beautiful thing. Personally, I am a closet film fanatic but I seldom shoot film consistently. The majority of my film work is based in large format 4×5 ventures with the occasional shitty print spit out the front of my beautiful Polaroid SX70. Still, I use digital cameras for most of my work because the worst day shooting digital is so much easier than even the best day of film. This ease of creation, in my learned yet subjective opinion, is the real culprit of the continued and prolonged butchery of photography. We’ve hit the high water mark of the great digital renaissance until now, beaten down against our own apathetic shore, this beautiful wave of creative and expressive innovation has begun to roll back.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on digital photography and how it impacts the persuasion of the way we approach making pictures. Which really, these days a photograph is by its very definition a term in the grips of extreme flux. More and more the word “image” is replacing the generally accepted idea of what a photograph actually is in our minds. “Photographs” have been synonymous with the physical photographic print for decades. Today, any digital composition is generally labeled as an “image” regardless of it’s origin. It’s only after that digital image is converted to a tangible manifestation is it then and only then referred to as a print. The days of the “print” and a “photograph” being one in the same is forever finished. Could it be that in our current creative climate of “share everything with everybody as soon as you fucking can if not sooner” it could be the presentation..and not the conception…of a photograph which has dulled down both the personal and external satisfaction that once was so ingrained(film humor) into our beloved art? This could very well be the case.
Think of it this way. It’s spring in 1933. Ansel Adams(yes, that one) is embarking on a cross country road traverse from San Francisco to New York City. His wife, Virginia, is pregnant and they feel now is the opportune moment to explore the country together before their lives become augmented by the confines of, as Ansel puts it, “family life.” The goal of this trip, stated or otherwise, is for the photographs of the accomplished but otherwise unknown Adams to show his collection of contact prints to Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery, An American Place. The rest, as Ghandi said, is history. The point is this: it took 2,600 miles of road with a pregnant woman during the Great Depression just to get a book of what was certainly a very curated portfolio of prints in front of the eyes of one of the only people who, at the time, considered photography to be a newly birthed medium of art.
What would happen today? Likely a link to an online portfolio, website or Instagram handle would float their way into some impersonal email populated with cold words and even colder intent. Would Stieglitz’s computer screen have been calibrated exactly the same as Ansel’s back home in California? The tonality and depth of shadow, the presence of the subtle suggestions of light and form, would that have looked the same on a cell phone? The notion that the mere mode of viewing esteemed photographs is not something that can or should host any amount of variability. Today, variability is accepted as a required evil for the immediateness of perception. This perception, although shoved along with it’s own admirable merits, in fact does kill the finite predictability of a photograph as it was meant to be seen by the maker.
Recently, I’ve experienced…no…recently I became self AWARE of a regrettably forgotten yet inalienable characteristic which was once present(in majority) in all photographs; standardization. My first photo book published a couple months ago and as I wracked through the process of shipping out the pre-orders I had the most pleasant of unexpected epiphanies.
Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, France, Spain, Ireland…each far separated new owner of my book had suddenly become part of a singular yet shared commonality. They will see the exact same photographs that I meant for them to see. No changes in tint or hue or contrast from the computer screen. No wondering how they’ll be compressed on whatever social media posting. There is purity in print. Unlike a digitally converted photo which becomes nothing but a sequence of 1’s and 0’s, the connection between craft and craftsmen remains untainted. The creative nature of the work stays the same and as long as that book endures so too will each and every photograph’s voice; a voice not as readily shared but wholly undimmed.
Alright, let’s end this rag out with some kind of gold-plated summation that will leave you feeling elevated and newly armed to approach your photography with atavistic vigor. The reality, I’m afraid, is not so grand. The board has been set as far as the present is concerned for photography. We can’t pull the proverbial 180 and go back to a simpler, more pure artistic plane. Well, at least not on the whole. Sure, each of us can try and try again to center ourselves back to some semblance of a long forgotten zero but for some this reboot will never be possible. Or will it? As photographers, or as I prefer…”photographists”… we walk a lonely road no matter our circumstances and so this rolls the whole circle fully round. Do you want to make images or photographs? What drives you to hit that button? Our own weird paths and attitudes towards the capturing of light will forever be different. And that, that wonderful weirdness that each one of us spits forth from cameras is what we should all fight to cling to within ourselves and within our work. A photograph isn’t something that simply “happens” no matter if it’s born from the union of emulsion and chemical or a silicon memory card. A photograph is a sum of everything that’s happened to you, all that could have happened, and everything that can happen. Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.
Photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find me on some distant trail making photographs or at my computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Pick up a copy of my new photo book of wild pony portraits, Faces of Grayson.