Monday, January 11, 2010

Why "photography"?

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As an artist, photography is just one part of what I do. I love to paint... I love to create mixed-media collages... I sketch... I write... I make music... I enjoy just about anything that lets me create. Photography is just one outlet I turn to for creative expression. It just happens to be the one I tend to turn to most often. I had never really questioned that before. I never had a reason to!

Then one night last month I found myself in Bryant Park in Manhattan, taking photos of folks braving the cold and snow to skate on the rink which seems to "appear" every winter. I was snapping away, when suddenly a man skated towards me, saying "Excuse me... but do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Sure!", I replied.

"Why photography?", he asked. To which I could only manage to get out the word... "Huh?".

He quickly responded with "Why 'photography'... as opposed to something else? What does it do for you?"... then went on to say how he had worked with several photographers over the years, and just wanted to know why someone would choose the medium... and what it does for them as an artist.

"Good question!", I said... in an attempt to buy time as I formulated a better response.

"I mean... What do YOU do with your photographs?", he asked.

"Not much", I replied. "I have a web site I post some on... and a blog... and some I use in competitions with a camera club I belong to. But most of them I don't really 'do anything' with. They're just for me."

"Do you sell them?" he asked.

"No. That's not really what I want to do with them", I replied.

"So why photography?" he asked again. "What do you get out of it?"

I found myself in the middle of a very awkward feeling... the feeling of having to ask myself that very question - "Why photography" - as if I had never truly asked it of myself before. I wasn't nearly as concerned with providing a response for him... as I was with finding the response for myself.

Why "photography"?

My mind wandered... and a dozen or so of my favorite images flashed before my eyes. I thought of the image of the incredibly thin student standing in front of a newsstand, glaring at the fashion magazines. I thought of the image of an old woman gliding down Madison Ave on in-line skates while carrying a pink Disney Princesses umbrella. I thought of the day last May when I happened upon some newlyweds in Tompkins Square Park, and managed to catch the joy in the bride's face as she and her groom had their first dance as "husband & wife".

... And it hit me...

"I like capturing those little moments of day-to-day life that no one else sees... or, at least... that most tend to miss. There's beauty in those moments... beauty we seem to overlook or take for granted", I said.

Right at that moment a child skated by, being held up by her mother and father. I turned and snapped a few shots...

A young couple... obviously out on a date... nervously made their way around, each relying on the other to keep from hitting the ice...

A young man, trying to show off in front of the ladies - came rushing around a corner, only to fall on his rear while showboating...

Real moments... each of them absolutely beautiful!

I love the feeling I get when I raise my camera to my eye... look through the viewfinder... and see something within a frame that no one else is seeing at that exact moment. I love "finding" the image... and capturing it.

Whether it's a "moment" like those I've described... or the abstract corner of an object I'm photographing as some sort of a still-life - I like taking something that is "real"... something that is "common" - and showing people that there is, in fact, beauty there. That's part of why I almost never alter my images beyond basic darkroom-esque adjustments to brightness, saturation, contrast and the like. No "Photoshopping" or digital image manipulation. Nothing that couldn't be done in a darkroom. Just the straight image... pure and real.

I also love the challenge of it! One of my favorite artists, the painter and photographer Chuck Close, had this to say about photography...

"The thing that interests me about photography and why it's different from all other media, is that it's the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece. You cannot make an accidental masterpiece if you're a painter or a sculptor. It's just not going to happen. Something will be wrong.

This is simultaneously photography's great advantage and its Achilles' heel: it is the easiest medium in which to be competent. Anybody can be a marginally capable photographer, but it takes a lot of work to learn to become even a competent painter. Now, having said that, I think while photography is the easiest medium in which to be competent, it is probably the hardest one in which to develop an idiosyncratic personal vision. It's the hardest medium in which to separate yourself from all those other people who are doing reasonably good stuff and to find a personal voice, your own vision, and to make something that is truly, memorably yours and not someone else's. A recognized signature style of photography is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve.

It always amazes me that just when I think that there's nothing left to do in photography and that all permutations and possibilities have been exhausted, someone comes along and puts the medium to a new use, and makes it his or her own, yanks it out of this kind of amateur status, and makes it as profound and moving and as formally interesting as any other medium. It's like pushing something heavy uphill. Photography's not an easy medium. It is, finally, perhaps the hardest of them all."


This challenge adds another element to the question's answer for me. Why "photography"? It challenges me... perhaps more than any other medium... to show who I truly am... to myself.

There... that's it!

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