What drives us to make the photographs that we do? This is a question applicable to almost everyone, these days, photographer or not. It makes me pause, though, and wonder how many people really have phones, and if a camera is really the necessary tool. Is this the right question, or am I thinking within my own bubble of familiarity?
Am I only speaking to the people with enough economic activity to have cell phones, or is this a fundamental question to humanity? If you don’t have a camera, not even on a phone, then how do you make pictures? How do you make your imagination known?
First of all, I would like to think about the question of universality. That is what I am trying to understand: is there a universal impulse to make pictures, and if so why? Do we all in one way or another engage in the act of making what we imagine into reality?
I think that making pictures, whether with a camera or a pencil, is really just another way of manifesting thought, of turning the mind’s conception into something real through the exercise of will. We all do this in our lives in numerous ways.
In reality, we all are artists and we actively create our ways of living, unconsciously or not. From the way you stand, the amount of exercise you do, the food you eat, your hygiene habits, every person creates their own physical image first and foremost. We are all brands. We always have been. This situation is just showing us that more than usual.
In this way, every person is a model first, an actor second, and an artist most of all. We are models because we create our personal image, we are in control of our look, and how we present to the world determines a lot about how we are received. We are actors because we control how we communicate, how we speak, how we express emotion. But, we are also writers because there is no script. There are just situations, relationships and decisions. From these things we each write our story every single day.
In addition to existing as an improvisational writer and actor, we also design the set and the costumes of our lives. Every single person does this no matter how limited or extravagant their budget. The prisoner on death row and the billionaire with their own island both are equally involved in the production of their space. While they have radical differences in their access to resources, what they do with their space is still determined by them. This is just something we do naturally, and in the case of the prisoner it is so limited that the entire process of choice becomes so subtle that it exists entirely in a world of nuance. Still, it exists.
In this way, humans act as brands. Or really, it is brands that mimic this form of pattern production, this chosen style of presentation. It happens in the natural world in an infinite array of varieties. The Cheetah is a brand of predator. We take from this natural tendency to express, or to hide (as in the case of the chameleon), our character. How does our appearance communicate our character?
Just as there is a power dynamic in the natural world, there is one in culture. Flaming Hot Cheetohs have a complicated set of codes that you can trace back through a series of business decisions based on feedback from the public. In business, there is a massive collaboration between creatives and consumers. In life, it is the same. We act and react based on how we feel about the response we get from the people we interact with in our day to day lives. Going against or with the grain still depends upon the grain.
Back to photography, though. Back to the records that we keep, the art that we create. If you have a phone with a camera on it and you scroll through your pictures you can see a lot of different lines of thinking.
On the one hand you have evidence. A photograph of a missing tooth, to show grandparents that the first baby tooth has left. We use photographs as evidence in complying with the rules, or of breaking them, which is evidence of rebelliousness. Lots of photographs these days show people confessing their inability to follow the rules, or their decision to break them. That is also be a kind of creative choice. We see that a lot. It’s a kind of trolling, really, but so common that we maybe don’t see it that way. People breaking the rules for the sake of breaking the rules is a huge part of American rebel without a clue culture, but I don’t think it is the prevalent tone today.
Instead, I see a lot of people figuring out what they are most passionate about and use their media to communicate their cause. We are a world where people who change the rules will be much more important than people who break them. This is another reason we make images. We want to express our values in order to attract the right kind of people into our lives so that we can create change, so we can write new rules together. So, photography is just an extension of being human, just another way we create an invitation to people to engage with us in living and reimagining what it means to be human.
Because it is a deliberate mental activity, it is natural to think about photography by considering psychology. Of course, there’s a psychological understanding of all human behavior, but our formal communications are especially open to this kind of interpretation. The choices we make in our photographs say a lot about who we are, even though the question of identity is never a simple one.
Psychology gives us data through experimentation that helps us to understand certain patterns or to try and fix some types of problems. There is a lot that we can learn about ourselves and others through a psychological understanding of the kinds of photographs we habitually consume and create.
But, beyond self-awareness there is another level of thinking about choice in photography. It is the basis of artistic form: style. Even with all of the anti-aesthetic theory of postmodernism, style has been the one unrelenting factor in the consideration of art, but especially when you understand that form and content are inextricable.
Style is the only thing left that has any ability to create leverage in art and life. Style itself comes from the exercise of creative control, from decisions made in the making of art in choices about life.
If you were simply to make whatever you want, to scratch whatever particular itch you are feeling, then would that make a more consistent and authentic type of content or is that simply an unconscious reaction to events? And if the latter, then is that just bad style or is it actually better being more authentic? What makes it good or bad?
That of course is subjective. It depends upon whether you like wild spontaneous diverse uncontrolled forms or if you appreciate precise controlled focused concentrations. Both are equally valid and can be expressed in art. In some ways the amateur impulse, when someone starts making photographs for fun, is the same as the artistic one. It is to create pleasure, but a certain kind of pleasure.
Richard Feynman wrote a book about the pleasure of finding things out. That is a certain kind of intellectual production: a scientific experiment. It is, like art, a way of organizing one’s mental energies: it is a style of living. It is based on shared values.
The art of making photographs has something of this intellectual joy of experimentation, of research to it. All art does. You have to try and make something that matches the way you feel, the effect you want to have with the resources available to you, and it is the completion of this experiment that creates an intellectual value to the work. When you stop to think about how the photographer does what they do, it enters into this other dimension of education, of learning about the world and about techniques of representation.
In this way, every moment of every day, we are creating the world around us. Never before has this been more apparent to us than during this time of changed habits. What we have is an opportunity to become more aware of the way we interact in the world, who we are, how we want to be perceived. This is a moment to reinvent, to experiment with new ideas, to take calculated risks. It is a time to work on our style.
Whether that means working to imagine greater sustainability, to envision economic opportunity, to create cultural change, or to contribute to the greater good by innovating and making something new that helps people to become who they want and need to be regarded as being: it is all the same. We are in the midst of a cultural revolution.