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

Photography is No Monolith

jason_gray - 1 (17)

Photography, at its root, is two things: 1. the recording of light phenomena (sometimes invisible to the human eye); 2. a means of communication (sometimes for a conversation that we have only with ourselves). In the overlap between these two, we see all of the photographs ever made, which of course, says very little about the purpose of their creation. This distinction, the photograph’s “purpose”, only becomes apparent once the relationship between the photographer and viewer has been established. For instance, a message delivered through a megaphone that never reaches the recipient renders the projection device meaningless, or without purpose. In this way, the purpose of a photograph that sells to an ad agency is commercial, while the purpose of a photograph that sells to a Museum is cultural, but this is also an oversimplification, since photographs that originally sold to ad agencies have wound up in Museums (a photograph’s purpose can change over time or a photograph can have multiple purposes simultaneously).


It is at this point that we begin to confuse things when writing or thinking about photography. For instance, the refraining notion that social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook are “killing photography” is an oft repeated sentiment, a version of which has existed at least as long as photography itself. The crux of this particular argument is that when such a platform becomes popular, over time, images that are popular on the platform begin to look more and more alike. While this is certainly true to a degree, for example, landscape photography is among the most popular forms of photography on Instagram and many of the most popular images associated there share similar features (exotic locations, sunsets/sunrises, candy-like color saturation, and maybe a bright pack/clothing/tent), we have to consider that these images all also share a similar, commercialized purpose which explains their aesthetic uniformity, and that within photography, there are myriad purposes for image-making beyond landscapes on Instagram.


Most photographers get this immediately, that an image made for an ad in a magazine may look entirely different than those made for an editorial in the same magazine, yet we still talk about photography like it is a monolithic thing. “Always shoot in Manual Mode!” “Never shoot during the middle of the day.” And even when we are communicating about photography with a similar purpose, we have a tendency to only think in terms of what’s traditionally been successful or at least what has become accepted. If the point of your photography is to sell images that sell something else, this is not necessarily a bad thing. You have a blueprint for what works, and so long as you remain reasonably up to date with your equipment and “look”, it’s pretty easy to develop a modus operandi that is proven to generate business- i.e. a successful corporate headshot approach can be utilized ad infinitum to reliably make you money. If this is your plan, however, don’t become sidetracked by trying to produce images with a cultural impact as well (unless this somehow is your modus operandi). After all, a distraction such as this could actually prevent you from delivering the image your client expects, thus costing you business.


That said, if the purpose of your photography is yet undetermined (you keep yelling into that megaphone to no avail), the best advice is to not take advice, especially, the all or nothing “tips” that circulate from within photography’s echo chambers. Shoot during the middle of the day, use the on-camera flash, ignore the rule of thirds, shoot wide open for landscape photography and closed for portraits- in other words, explore a vision that is uniquely yours, and eventually, if you are lucky, the purpose of your photography may become clear.


One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Photography is No Monolith […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: