A friend of mine is fond of saying: “If you buy a violin, you own a violin; if you buy a camera, you are a photographer.”
Hold that thought.
I’ve been thinking recently about why so many people seem to talk past each other on photography boards and have decided that a part of the reason is that they have different goals; not just different subject matter or different styles, but different reasons to be photographers (or just camera owners). That led me to attempt a list of some different categories and sub-categories of photographers. These are meant to be descriptors of circles on a Venn diagram; it is probable that most photographers fall into many of these classes.
These folks just like to own fine or rare machinery, or maybe hang on to something because it brings back good memories. Some are overt collectors, like the people who have a bookshelf full of vintage Leicas and have memorized lists of significant serial numbers. Some don’t think of themselves in that way, but just possessing gear is a source of satisfaction to them. Within this category are brand loyalists, whose joy of ownership is not tied to particular cameras, but to specific companies (think Ford vs Chevy).
Put me down as a camera collector; I still have a Nikon S2 that I purchased used in 1957. It’s got a 50mm f/2 lens that is pretty awful by today’s standards. I don’t use film anymore. Yet every five years I spend a couple of hundred bucks to have it CLA’d. Someday, I’ll probably have to part with that camera, and that will make me sad. All my cameras were purchased with the intent of making pictures, but I do have a yen for a Nikon SP that’s been beaten up, scarred, and worn down to the brass in the service of some famous photographer.
Like watches and bicycles, some cameras and lenses have evolved into beautifully designed and constructed objects that are a visual and tactile pleasure to operate. The in-the-moment feeling of using photographic equipment can be a source of pleasure. In addition, some people go to places with the intention of making photographs, and the experience of being there is enjoyable. They could have gone without the camera, but they might not have chosen that in the absence of a photographic goal.
Here’s a special case. When I was in high school, I was a photographer for the school newspaper and the yearbook. One of the things I liked about that was that, with a camera in my hand and some Mickey-Mouse credentials, I could go almost anywhere. I gained access to people and events that would have otherwise been closed to me.
It may not seem like this if you spend a lot of time on photo equipment boards, but some people use cameras to produce images. You are firmly in this camp if your primary reason for owning the camera is to make actual photographs. Within this category, there are many sub-groups; they follow.
Photography has the ability to capture incredible visual detail, sometimes in a fraction of a second. Photographic print materials can have lifetimes that span many generations. Printing presses and the web have given images global reach. These capabilities have inevitably led to using photographs to document our world. This tradition goes back to the beginnings of photography, and was a recurring theme in the 19th century – think Matthew Brady and the Civil War, or Carleton Watkins and the California landscape. Despite the three essential choices of a photographer – where to stand, what to include in the frame, and when to trip the shutter – providing opportunities to bias the resultant picture, photography early acquired a reputation for verisimilitude. The advent of computer editing has tarnished that status recently, but photographs remain valuable and cherished records of what happened in the past.
Photojournalists are documenters. So are people taking photographs of their family to preserve the moments. The people operating the finish line cameras at racetrack are documenters, as well as the people taking selfies with celebrities, or with landmarks in the background while on vacation. A sub-genre that I find strangely popular is Facebook posters of pictures of meals that are about to be consumed. Catalog photography is documentation. The NASA photographs that we see from space probes are, too. The ones that the astronauts make are documents of reality at base, even if they haven’t convinced everybody and some of them, like the earthrise image that graced the Whole Earth catalog, are far more than that. There is a class of documenter that makes images of mundane things, hoping that they will be valued in the future even if they aren’t immediately after capture.
Especially if you consider Instamatics and cell phones, documentation is by far the biggest use for photography.
There are people who go to famous spots and seemingly search for the figurative tripod holes of photographers who made iconic images. Their reward is almost always a less-successful version of the original.
Here’s an extreme example. When it’s running, Horsetail Fall flows into the Yosemite Valley down the eastern face of El Capitan. In February, if the water level is high enough and the weather cooperates, there are days when the falls are lit by the setting sun, giving them a fiery glow. Every year, hordes of photographers congregate at one of the canonical vantage points, set up their gear, and hope to walk away with a photograph not much different from the thousands of other photographs that have been made over the years.
Another Yosemite illustration. The vantage point at Tunnel View is always full of photographers. Not all of them are cellphone users; many have fancy gear and carbon-fiber tripods. If the weather cooperates, the best they can hope for is yet another take on Clearing Winter Storm. I’ve seen a lot of Tunnel View shots posted on the web, and hardly any approach Adams’ ur-image of that vista (William Neal is a notable exception).
There’s another class of trophy hunter, who don’t try to find an iconic scene, but instead make their own versions of archetypal subjects. You know the ones: slot canyons, seascape sunsets, bears catching leaping salmon, etc. There is little creativity here, although there may be considerable time and money invested in the pursuit of the picture.
I frankly don’t understand the fascination with this kind of image-making, although I admit to pursuing it when I was young and inexperienced. But it is undeniably popular, and not just among tyros. For a few weeks in December and January, the sunset behind Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur provides an impressive light show. It’s not as big a deal as Horsetail Falls, but there are thousands of similar photographs of this phenomenon. A local photographer chose his version for the cover of one of his books. I can’t imagine choosing something so hackneyed to showcase my creativity, but this was a considered decision by a skilled practitioner.
Last time I was in Yosemite, I gave a little shiver when I passed the Tunnel View parking lot, and drove on. But the fact a trophy photograph is not my objective doesn’t mean that I think people who pursue and prize them are inferior on some non-existent scalar photographic goodness metric. It just means that I don’t understand those people. We’ll get to the category of self-expressers in a bit. I’m one of those, and hunting trophies is pretty far from self-expression.
You can tell stories in pictures as well as words, and many people use photographs for this. Life magazine used to publish photo essays, which drove the point home. Some photographers, like W. Eugene Smith, were masters of this form. Eugene Richards does the same kind of thing in book form.
A well-conceived, well-chosen (and sometimes lucky) image can also powerfully tell a story. I mentioned the Apollo 8 earthrise image, which so achingly captures the isolation, beauty, and fragility of our planet. There are countless others. Nick Ut’s 1972 image of nine-year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked down a Vietnamese street after a napalm attack. Robert Capa’s grainy Omaha Beach D-Day images. Any one of many Diane Arbus images.
The above are in some sense documentary images, but photographs can tell stories that never happened. William Mortensen and the pictorialists pursued this. Cindy Sherman made a career out of it.
In between are images of found (as opposed to arranged, like most pictorialist works) subjects that evoke stories in the viewer’s mind. They are evocative, but ambiguous. Many of Sally Mann’s images spring to mind. I tried to mine this vein in the Nighthawks and Staccato series.
We are awash in images. Billions every day. Most are useful only as documents, and many are soon forgotten. But some images can change the perspective of the viewer, and make them think of the world, of society, or of themselves in a different way. Edward Weston found uncommon beauty in common objects. Henri Cartier-Bresson captured arresting visual arrangements in ordinary moments. Some photography has political intent; it falls in this category.
These come in two flavors. The first is self-explorers. Rather than trying to change the way that others see things, these folks want to change themselves, and, like writing or painting, photography can be a tool for self-exploration. Making — and finding — images that affect you powerfully is a way to peel back the onion layers of your own psyche and discover what’s under the surface. Photography has great power to surprise the photographer, and that power can be managed and used for discovering one’s own spiritual capacities.
The second group are people who want to learn new things and discover new ideas. I once attended a lecture by Fred Brooks, the author of The Mythical Man-Month, on the subject of design. He claimed that there are essential similarities among the designs of a computer program (Fred led the OS/360 project before he entered academia), a computer, an automobile, an airplane, a building, a city, or a bridge, and nearly everything else that is designed by people. He illustrated his assertion by comparing the design process for a remodel of his house in North Carolina to that of a software operating system. The parallels were striking. I’ll go a step further and say that there are many resemblances between the design of a photograph and all those other design exercises. Design is iterative; Coleridge, Kubla Khan, and the possibly-fictional person from Porlock excepted, almost never does a complete fully-fleshed out design pop into the designer’s head. Instead, design is a series of inspirations, tests, failures, analyses, recombinations, reinventions, retries, more failures, and finally success. In software design, all that is usually explicit. In the design of a photograph, it may take place entirely in the mind of the photographer, be highly non-linear and rapid, and not be consciously comprehended by the photographer herself. But, at least for me, it is exceedingly pleasurable for its own sake. That’s one of the reasons I like the iteration and continuous refinement of working in series.
Although currently out of fashion in the upper echelons of the art world, creating and finding beauty is a near-universal human value. Making beautiful photographs is deeply pleasurable for some, and sharing this beauty with the world also is a source of satisfaction for many.
For a decreasing number of photographers, photography is a full-time occupation and a lucrative way to put bread on the table. For an increasing population, it’s a source of part-time income or a way to enhance some other business activity.
I struggled with what to call this one. There is a near-universal human desire for recognition, praise, acclamation, from others. When enough people are involved, the word for what is sought is fame. But you don’t need a lot of people figuratively kissing your feet to derive deep satisfaction. Praise from your close family, kind words from strangers viewing your work at an exhibition, an article in the local newspaper (if you are lucky enough to still have one of those), a note from someone who has admired your work on a website, a prize in a competition, or a publication in a magazine are all affirmations that feel good. I’m not sure it’s healthy, but now people can quantify affirmation but counting up social media likes.
I apologize for the infelicity of the category name. This is related to, but not the same as, self-promotion, which is motivated by wanting others to think well of you. Self-expression is similarly about communication, but the satisfaction is derived simply from the outward manifestation of one’s ideas, thoughts, beliefs, world view, etc, and not necessarily in the reaction of others. Of course, the two are related; it doesn’t feel good to get your inner thoughts out in the world if all the world tells you is how rotten they are.
There is a altered mental state that I used to get into, especially when doing street work, that is akin to meditation. Doing street photography requires me to be open to the world’s colors, shapes, dramas, juxtapositions, patterns, gestures, and emotions in a way that is far different from how I normally perceive it. My heart rate and respiration slows down, yet part of me remains hypervigilant and primed to act quickly. After I’ve done this for a few hours, I feel refreshed. There is something similar that happens in a studio when doing portraits, but that never lasts long enough for me to get the full effect. I imagine that, for some, that could happen making still lifes in the studio, but it never has for me. On the other hand, I have experienced it in the darkroom, just before my back started hurting and broke the spell.
I’m sure there are other reasons why people photograph, but if we just take the ones above, we’ve defined an 12-dimension vector space. I talked about a Venn diagram at the beginning. We would get that if we asked people to assign binary values to their relationship to each category. But that’s too simple a model. What if we polled photographers and asking them to assign one of five numbers to the importance of each category to them, say, 0 for no value, 1 for of little importance, 2 for moderately important, 3 for very important, and 4 for crucial. Pretty crude, but that gives us five to the 12th, or about a quarter of a billion possibilities. And that’s before we get to what they’re photographing and what they’re doing with the pictures.
Add that to many people’s preference for noisy, subjective, anecdotal reports over reproducible numerical ones, and is it any wonder that there’s so little agreement about photo gear?