This article began as a post in the Photography Books and Theory group on Facebook. It is a friendly and informative group and as the name implies, it is a place to discuss books and theory related to photography. I referenced an observation from Holly Gilman in that post and she encouraged me to expound on the idea a little more here at 35mmc.
Holly’s work had recently been included in an exhibition. She made a brief tour of the space for a video on her YouTube channel (which I encourage you all to subscribe to) and she was discussing the various work on display. It included some cyanotypes that had been made on eggshells. It probably seemed awkward to refer to it as photography, so she pondered a bit about photography and photographic art. This observation was the genesis of my post to the group.
My own experience with photography seems like a typical path. I grew up using film to capture memories of family and friends. As an adult, after digital had taken hold, I began practicing photography as a hobby. While I still do shoot digitally, I have primarily been using film since the beginning of the pandemic. I will touch on some of the reasons later in the article.
While photography has been my own outlet, I believe the impetus for it was seeded through my family. Particularly my mother’s side. My grandfather grew up on a farm during different times and life circumstances. They had to work with their hands. Consequently, he was skilled in many areas including carpentry and woodworking. My grandmother was a proficient seamstress. My mother still enjoys quilting. My sister enjoys all types of arts and crafts. They both enjoy gardening. My sister’s daughter painted and originally wanted to focus on that in school. My cousins from that side of the family all played musical instruments. It might seem as though I would have a firm understanding then about the compulsion to create, but oddly I don’t necessarily feel as though I do. Hence why I posed the question to the group to get their thoughts.
On my photographic outings, I may see a tree I like and take a picture of it. But why? It’s not as though I feel some sort of sentimental attachment to the tree and want to preserve the memory. I’m not building a project around tree images or selling my work. In fact, no other human being is likely to ever see it. It may have been the lighting that caught my eye, but what is the goal for capturing it?
Whatever image I capture of it will be straightforward – here is an image of a tree, this is what it looked like as I was standing there and what an average person walking by would experience. Others can apply creativity to such an image to make it more than a document of the moment. Maybe they take a long exposure with the limbs swaying to imply a windy day. Maybe they shoot from a low angle and utilize distortion from a wide-angle lens to make the tree seem larger.
But the larger point I’m building to is that some may not take a photograph at all. They might make a sketch or a painting including elements from their imagination. Still others may take a leaf from the tree and create a cyanotype. And still others may not create visually at all. They might compose a haiku or write a poem about what it felt like to be there. And the bigger question still is why would any of us do any of those things? Why not stay at home and relax in the garden or go out to the cinema or any of the other countless things we could do with our time that don’t involve expressing ourselves creatively? So we really have two questions – one about why we do it and the other about why we choose the medium we use to do what we do.
The answers to those questions are different for everyone and for many of us there are nuances. And it also evolves over time. I mentioned earlier that I returned to analogue photography at the beginning of the pandemic. There were many factors. They were unrelated to the pandemic, but the timing and subsequent lockdown created a perfect time to evaluate my photography and what I hoped to get out of it.
Much of my photography in 2019 involved attending workshops. I was also considering purchasing my next camera, but the digital world was transitioning from DSLRs to mirrorless. Artificial Intelligence and other editing techniques continued to evolve in the computing space. Cameras in cell phones continue to get better and better. And on a more personal note, much of my digital photography in the previous decade had centered around my son and his athletic pursuits. He was moving to the next stage of his life. And in truth he had been less enthusiastic about still images for a while, favoring video content that highlights action better and is more engaging on social media.
With the pandemic, there were no workshops for some time. It didn’t seem prudent to invest money into either a system that was going away or a system that wasn’t fully developed. I am not one to say that digitally editing photos is not “real” photography, but I’ve just never enjoyed the digital workflow. My normal job involves sitting at a computer all day, so I’ve never wanted to invest the time into becoming proficient at it (this is still a challenge to me, particularly in color-correcting film scans). Taking cell phone snaps is often the practical solution, but it doesn’t really fulfill me photographically in the same way. And while I continued making images of my son’s athletic achievements, I was making fewer of them digitally and more on them with film.
My photography was invigorated. I had all but stopped going out to enjoy digital photography even before the pandemic. I was certainly thankful to get out into nature to take analogue pictures after being in the house for days at a time. But it was something more than that. Yes, I enjoyed the images. But the tangibility and the processes spoke to me on a different level. Developing the film and then later making a darkroom print gave me a certain sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in a way that I assume my grandfather felt in building a bookcase or my mother feels when sewing a quilt. Not to pass judgement on anyone who doesn’t create, but clearly there must be some deep-rooted compulsion within certain people to bring a thing into the world that didn’t exist and wouldn’t without their effort. Expressing themselves in that way appears to satisfy that compulsion.
I must acknowledge that I had hit a crossroads at the start of the pandemic. Digital photography by itself wasn’t bringing me that same satisfaction that it had before. If going back to film and its tactile nature had not been an option, would I have given up on photography? Would I have found some other outlet? While the community is more robust than it was ten years ago, there is no guarantee that film and film cameras will always be around. If the challenges to the environment or supply chain or profitability cannot be met and analogue photography goes away, would I turn back to only digital again? Or some alternative process? Would I try to take up painting or sketching? Would I finally embrace the technology to master Photoshop? Or would I just cease attempting to create in the visual arts? Am I a creative person who uses photography to express that creativity? Or am I someone who enjoys photography which coincidently unlocks a creative side of me?
Thank you for taking the time to read through these reflections. If you enjoy thinking on topics of this nature, let me encourage you to join the aforementioned group and participate in the conversation!