Why we take photographs

As promised, today I’d like to discuss the paradoxical question of whether we take photographs to chronicle our lives or whether we live our lives to take photographs?  Put in a simpler fashion, the question of the day is why do we take photographs?

It seems trivial to say that photography revolutionized the world and our view of it.  It was invented at a time of great discovery and it was immediately employed to chronicle these discoveries.  Of course, this quickly meant “ante up.”  Early photography was cumbersome; so it is not surprising that adoption was slow.  Most of the great geographical discoveries of the mid-nineteenth century, for instance the discovery of the Source of the Nile, went unphotographed.  But, by the time of the early twentieth century expeditions to the arctic and antarctic it was expected that a camera would chronicle the event.  This is just as we later expected a camera to chronicle the first ascent of Mount Everest and the first footstep on the moon.  Ubiquitous to all of these events was the fundamental difficulty of taking the photograph.

In the nineteenth century the grand tour became both popular and an essential element of a young sophisticate’s education.  This represented the individual’s journey of exploration.  You wanted a record of your journeys.  You might even have seen yourself in some small way an explorer. After all, we are all legends in our own minds. To chronicle their travels they brought back pictures and artefactual. The purchase of paintings soon gave way to the purchase of photographs, photogravures, and post cards.  With George Eastman’s simplification of photography and the photographic process people began to chronicle their travels and the events of their lives with photographs.

It is easy to make the argument that Eastman’s inventions led to a great wave of photographic mediocrity.  I think that the case for this is strong.  However, I did recently read how people are now collecting these early random photographs of other peoples lives.  So in that sense it has become art, or at least of historical significance.

There is the argument that Kodak started a process whereby the purpose of travel became not to travel, see, and learn, with photography retaining precious memories, but to photograph.  The chronicle became the purpose.  There is evidence to support this. Kodak would mark the sites at scenic overlooks, for instance, where pictures should be taken. Sitting through Uncle Harry’s slides became an oft experienced chore.  People no longer went, like Victorians, to Africa to shoot big game with a gun, they now went and go to shoot big game with a camera.  I once remember visiting the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence.  The only other people there were a family of Japanese tourists, who scurried about following a preplanned itinerary and paused for ever so short a moment to snap their portraits standing before a well-known work of art.  Their game was pretty obvious.

Of course, with the coming of digital photography and subsequently IPhones and social media, it all became a pretty trivial pursuit.  As the camera became and continues to become smaller and smaller, it ceases to be an entity unto itself. Essentially everyone has a camera all of the time.  They’ve become part of us.  These cameras are remarkable in their ability to conquer all technical adversity except mediocrity of vision and poor composition. Everything is photographed and all experience is instantly shared.

While there may still be a significant segment of the population that is using their cameras or cell phones as electronic score cards; and while there are still those who pursue the latest camera or the largest lens as some sort of phallic symbol of richness; I have to argue, as I have before, that connectivity is good.  People take pictures and upload them for friends to see as a means of connecting and sharing with these friends.  Human experience shared is human experience enriched.  Someday people may collect our digital personal records. Don’t assume that they will all be lost or that they will be deemed worthless. And at that moment we will have achieved the same miracle that those who recorded their lives on film achieved.  That is communication across time and generations – that is communication of real lives lived, experienced, and recorded.

This entry was posted in Essays on Photography.