Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

The Photography Experience

Posted in art, awareness, Jason Gray by Jason Gray on May 8, 2015

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As mentioned previously, my last trip to Hawaii left me considering our relationship to our cameras and the images they make. A tour of Honolulu made me broadly aware of the spectrum of motivation behind our image-making; does a photograph make a document, and if so, is the document of the subject in front of the camera or the one behind it?

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Traveling to Pearl Harbor on a bus with a group of strangers, I watched how these individuals used their cameras. At first, I was merely interested in what they were deciding to photograph, hoping to not miss anything important myself. At the cue of the tour guide, I saw time and again, the many arms of passengers swing up with cameras at the ready: to record anything, everything, or nothing at all. With the bus in motion, I observed one traveler lean over another to make a quick grab shot of something out the window. During the process, their camera’s built-in flash automatically triggered, spoiling the image with reflected glare. This passenger sat back in their seat, checked the image they had just made on the rear LCD screen of their camera, and seeming satisfied, continued to make several dozen more images in exactly the same way. Another passenger unwittingly photographed the entire trip with their camera in some sort of fisheye mode. Again and again, I saw images being created that could not possibly have been concerned about “what makes a good photograph”. While it is true that most of my fellow travelers did not consider themselves photographers, and so had not been trained in either camera operation or image composition, each of these persons made as many (or more) photographs as I did. Why?

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The first answer is an old one, and quite simple to rationalize; a photograph is a trophy, or a proof that one has been somewhere or done something. Consider the two images above. The bottom image illustrates an animal shot and killed by the hunting couple stationed just behind it. This image records both the death-dealing wound inflicted upon the beast, and the tool that delivered it. It provides proof that the couple were in proximity to the animal when it died, and implies that one of them shot the creature. The photograph is then additional reassurance against any later listener’s skepticism of this couple’s retelling of the events (as if the antelope’s head mounted on the wall weren’t enough). Meanwhile, the top photograph does exactly the same thing. It demonstrates both the prey that the couple hunted for, and their triumph in finding it.

“All photographs are memento mori.” -Susan Sontag

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“The more I photograph, the more I use photography to make the map of my intentions visible to me.” -Joel Meyerowitz

As a child, I do remember making photographs on vacation, but I do not recall my family making dozens, let alone hundreds. It seems clear then that the action of making images has become attached to the act of experiencing an event, which probably has much to do with social media providing an instant and ever present platform for sharing visual content. Now, when we see an exotic place for the first time, attend a social event, or go through any life process worthy of reflection, it is quite likely that this experience shall be somehow tempered in our memory by the activation and use of an image-recording device. In this way, the camera becomes an ingredient impacting the action of our senses upon memories inferred. The camera acts as a portal through which our past reality passes through into an enlightened one; this is a very necessary process in terms of our internal categorization of life events.

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“I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around: that nothing was more important or less important.” -William Eggleston

Having witnessed the approach to photographing described in my bus recollection above, it seemed clear to me that the possibilities for making images were suddenly expanded. In experiential photography, none of the traditional rules should apply: any image that you can make, so long as it is authentic to your experience of a place, is as good as any other. The camera no longer serves as a vehicle upon the journey of producing a fine print. In this new world, the image is, in fact, close to meaningless (a truth declared by the quantity of images available and the easy means to produce such a quantity). Rather, the camera is now the most important element of photography, for it is the device directly linked to and informing our conclusions about life itself.

Of course, this is troublesome if you value images. However, if you photographers disagree (and I hope that you do believe that the image is more important than the act of making it), consider for a moment what the ratio is of your own photographs that you have printed versus those stored in the vault of your hard drive. If that ratio is even 1:100, you should feel extremely productive. Granted, I’ll admit, most of the images that we share today are shared electronically. Do you believe that the impact upon the viewer is the same for electronic images as for printed images? How many images have you seen online just today? How many do you really remember? How many do you remember from last week? Last month? If the viewer’s relationship to an electronic image is less meaningful than to a print, why would photographers ever concede to such a betrayal of their medium?

Considering that the world now produces more than 400 billion photographs annually, is it truly a surprise that the collective impact of any single image is reduced exponential to the total amount generated? Yet, photographs DO continue to impact. For the casual shooter though, this impact may be less and less significant than the action of generating the image.

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