White Trees, Series 2, No. 7

White Trees, Series 2, No. 7

One use for a camera is to create pictures as mementos – objects to keep as reminders of persons, places, or events.  In fact, I suspect that this is the most common use for cameras.  In the past, people kept photo albums precisely for this purpose, though today I presume image files on computers or posts to Facebook probably have taken their place.

It’s a perfectly good use for a camera, but I think holding onto the idea of photographs as mementos creates problems if you are trying to use photography as a creative medium.  When I read about photographers commenting on their own images, I often come across the statement, in one form another, that the photographer likes the image because it reminds him or her of something like the chill in the air, or the crashing of the waves, or some other attribute of the experience of having been there when the photograph was made.

This is treating the photograph as a memento, and the problem with this kind of thinking (to me, anyway) is that the measure of the photograph becomes, at least in part, how well it serves to capture the experience of having been there.  Essentially, the photograph is “good” if it makes you feel like you could have been standing there beside the photographer at the moment of capture, seeing what he or she was seeing, experiencing what he or she was experiencing.

I have nothing against having great experiences while out photographing.  For me personally, the act of photographing is a wonderful way to engage with the world in a manner that transcends the ordinary, and I have gained many immensely satisfying personal experiences simply from taking my camera out into the world with the intention to photograph it.

But I don’t confuse the experience of photographing with the art of the photograph.  To me, the image lives separately, apart from the experience of capturing it.  When I edit captures, sometimes the resulting image reflects the experience in some direct or indirect way, and sometimes the image reflects something completely different.  The experience of making the capture is one thing, but the capture itself is just raw material from which an image is made, the meaning of which may be something else entirely.

It’s not a trivial point.  Like all art, photographs are a communication between the maker and the viewer.  If your photographs serve partly or wholly as mementos to you, then isn’t the message you are communicating to your viewer simply, “you should have been there?”  If you make photographs as expressions of creativity, shouldn’t they say something more meaningful?

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