Remember Photography?

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to join in with a collective of photographers, sort of a 21st century camera club (more on that later). This process engaged me with photography in a way I haven’t been in a while. It was once a language in which I was fluent. For the past 10-15 years, probably since the onset of digital photography, my relationship with the medium has grown distant. The deluge of images to see and myriad ways to shoot and process available to us is overwhelming. It has been hard to really see, and I have find myself pondering the meaning of photography in a modern world.

There are some elemental questions that should be investigated regarding photography: What do we mean by photography? Why is photography relevant as art in the 21st century?

Photography is about telling (or, sometimes simply showing) stories. There, I said it. Are you sick of hearing all the talk about telling stories? Every marketing team has adopted the idea that they are trying to tell a story, that every a brand is its company’s story. I appreciate that, and the notion has created a lot of beautiful marketing materials, but using the idea of a story to further a business agenda is more like story-yelling. A real story has mystery, is left open to interpretation, is a work of art.

Written language (fiction, creative non-fiction, investigative journalism) tells beautiful stories too, but it consists of a finite set of symbols whereas the captured image, with all those greys, has infinite possibility. This brings us to a subplot: photography is immediacy and yet nothing can freeze a moment forever like a good photo. Finally, and most importantly, photography, photography with intent, is magic. Alchemy. Think of the darkroom with all its mysterious potions! I used to work with a photographer who said you could always tell when someone was holding their breath when they opened the shutter. Similarly, I think the viewer can tell when there is an intention to search for truth and/or magic in an image.

As a photographer trained in the silver halide and darkroom arts, the trajectory of how many photos I shoot has gone up at the same rate that my faith in my ability to conjur the magic to tell stories has fallen. There are plenty of pictures, but not that much magic. Some of the magic is lost with the pure volume of photography out there, each image screaming at us to click it or like it with little time or space to really SEE it.

I guess that we are in some kind of Age of Photography. Digital technology, high-speed networks, and great programming have created an explosion of imagery, but is it revolutionary? Is a selfie (cellfie?) really related to a Self-Portrait, that high art notion of revealing some truth about oneself?

I hope to continue to explore the threads between the darkroom arts and the digital, looking for the real story behind the image. There is pleasure both in refining the art that is about film and darkroom—once simply a way for the average non-artist to capture an image and communicate—and to make real the digital. The magic isn’t just in the code, but somewhere out there waiting to be seen.

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