Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

The Unanswered Question

I’m not an expert on the history of photography.  I’m also not someone who can talk endlessly about “famous” photographers and their styles.  As the saying goes, I probably know just enough to be dangerous.  Or maybe less than enough.

But I do like to buy books about photography, especially those that include reasonably good reproductions of work done by some of the “greats”.  And one of the reasons I buy them is the hope that I might find an answer to a question that has intrigued me for a long time:  Why?

Why does someone take a particular photograph?  In the face of all the choices one can make with a camera in hand, why one image and not another?  I have to say that the question has been driving me nuts for years……

Problem is, no one seems to want to provide an answer.  Take Ansel Adams, for example.  I’ve always been a fan.  (I know that’s not popular in certain circles today, but I am.)  One of the books I own is Examples:  The Making of 40 Photographs.  The book has decent reproductions of 40 Adams’ photographs, and includes written descriptions of things like where, when, and how – all written by Adams himself.  A lot of it is technical stuff.  Interesting, but not necessarily enlightening.  And sometimes he’ll say (as we all do) that he was “lucky”, that he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Fair enough.

But he generally ignores the question of “why”.  The closest he comes to talking about “why” is in his discussion of the iconic “Clearing Winter Storm” image.  After roughly 3 pages of technical stuff, Adams says:

“Although the photograph is often seen as an environmental statement, I do not recall that I ever intentionally made a photograph for environmentally significant purposes.  My photographs that are considered to relate to these issues are images conceived for their intrinsic aesthetic and emotional qualities, whatever these may be.” 

“Whatever these may be“?  Are you kidding?  That’s it?  He couldn’t be just a tiny bit more specific?

Adams, of course, is not alone in this.  Most photographers (famous or not) seem averse to such discussions.  Yet I always hope that someone will offer up some clue.  Which is why I started watching the Peter Lik From the Edge series on the Weather Channel.  In case you’ve missed it, the guy goes from place to place around the globe showing us how he makes his most successful photographs.  In general, I’m not a Lik fan.  Most of his stuff has that “over-the-top” look – too much contrast and way too much saturation.

In any case, a big disappointment.  Reading between the lines, I think it’s safe to say that his “why” has mostly to do with money.  That is, whether he can sell it or not.  I’ve even been to one of his galleries in Las Vegas (I worked nearby).  Very expensive stuff, and not all that good, in my opinion.  But people were buying it.

I also have a small confession to make.  If I’m out shooting and I see another photographer working nearby, I will almost always try to figure out what he or she is looking at.  What do they see that I don’t?  Why are they framing that particular shot?  Most of the time it’s a fruitless exercise, simply because I discover that I have no interest in what they’re looking at.  None.  But if someone were to ask me why not, I couldn’t answer them.  I wouldn’t know.  I just don’t “connect”.

So now I have a new theory.  I think that the reason nobody talks about the “why” in photography is because they don’t know, either.  Essentially, we’re all on autopilot when we do our thing.  It’s a hardwired response.  Generally speaking, we don’t really make conscious choices when we make photographs.  Some part of our brain (an unconscious part) leads us by the nose to certain compositions.  That’s why the photographic “how – to” books really don’t work.  They can tell you about technical choices like aperture and shutter speed and how to use specific lenses and filters, but they can’t tell you how to create an image that “works”.  When they try to, the inevitable result will be confusion and frustration, simply because whatever they say will run counter to your own hardwired, internal guidelines.

Now, if I could only figure out what my own “internal guidelines” actually were, I could probably save myself a lot of mental angst.

8 Responses to “The Unanswered Question”

  1. Ken Bello

    “Why” or “why not” can be tough questions if someone is seriously seeking answers. It could be that it’s not what a photographer sees, but what he imagines. Because photography is a visual art form, photographers don’t express themselves verbally and the explanation of why they took a particular photo, if it’s not apparent, isn’t of interest to them. They want the viewer to use their imagination and their intelligence. Your photo here is a perfect example. As a photographer myself, I appreciate the care and technical expertise necessary to produce the image. It’s beautiful. This scene grabbed your attention and you immediately saw the potential for a great photo. It’s the artist in you speaking. Not the statistician.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Ken. I really appreciate the artist vs. statistician sentiment. Although I’m not sure they’re as unrelated (relative to thought process) as most people might think!

      And yes, this image “grabbed” my attention. But why? Is it because of what I saw or as you say, because of something I “imagined”? Or maybe something else. Maybe it has something to do with things we remember or maybe it has to do with our personal sense of visual balance. I don’t know.

      But the question remains…….

  2. andy ilachinski

    Delighted to have stumbled on your site; will have to make it a regular stop! Wonderful images, and equally as wonderful questions / musings, such as the object of this post. Why, indeed!? Unfortunately, I have no deep insight to offer, other than confirming that – for me, too, speaking as a photographer for over 35+ years – it is, and remains, a profoundly deep ineffable mystery. Why THIS shot and not that? Why THIS moment and not the one before or after? A few years back I posted some thoughts on the subject on my own blog, which you may find interesting (no answers though! 😉

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Andy. And thanks for the link to your previous post. I’ve long been a “sometimes” visitor to your site, but I don’t recall ever seeing that entry. It’s always nice to know that there are others who ponder the same questions from time to time. I only wish that you’d provided a definitive answer! Just kidding. What fun would this be if it were easy?

  3. Cedric

    I came across Ken Bello’s post and commented there before following the link back here only to find Andy commenting and posting a link to his post which I also left on Ken’s post. Funny. Little “happenings” like this make my day.

    I’ve explored this myself but am no wiser than anyone else as to an answer but I do see the answer as being intricately linked to Socrates’ age-old advice “know thyself” or as you put it Paul, if we could only figure out what our own “internal guidelines” actually were, we could probably save ourselves a lot of mental angst.

    • Paul Maxim

      You’re right, Cedric. These little internet induced mind-melds can make my day, too.

      As to Socrates’ adage, all I can say is “easier said than done”. I’m beginning to believe that the part of the brain that controls the “Artist” in each of us is permanently off-limits. We can’t see it because there’s a firewall there that cannot be breached by mere mortals. If we could gain access, maybe it would become part of our conscious thought process. Which of course might mean that we would be forever screwed as far as “making art” was concerned.


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