Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

“Just Because” isn’t an Answer

In hindsight, some of the responses to my last post were predictable.  As were some of the responses to my friend Ken’s posting (an “answer” to my post) on his own site.  “Predictable” because we’ve all heard these kinds of things before.  We hear them mostly from amateur photographers, who, in general, seem to be a particularly sensitive lot.  Ask them why they make the images that they do and many seem to get just a tad defensive.  It’s as if you’re attacking their artistic manhood (or womanhood).   So what you get are “answers” like,

“I just like them (images).”

“Because it’s enjoyable.”

“I just love to take pictures.”

“The only real answer I have for ‘why’ is because I have to.”

It’s kind of like asking a young child why they did a particular thing, and they say “Because I wanted to”.  The “adult” response to the child, of course, is that that answer isn’t quite good enough.  It’s just a little lacking in intellectual depth.  So, depending on your level of patience, you ask them again and again until you either get a “real” answer or you give up in utter frustration.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Art (capital ‘A’) needs much in the way of verbal explanation.  But asking “why” you made a certain photograph is not the same as asking what that photograph “means” (although the two questions are probably related).  In “Why People Photograph“, Robert Adams said –

Art is by nature self-explanatory.  We call it art precisely because of its sufficiency.  Its vivid detail and overall cohesion give it a clarity not ordinarily apparent in the rest of life.”

Later, in the same essay, he says –

The main reason that artists don’t willingly describe or explain what they produce is, however, that the minute they do so they’ve admitted failure.  Words are proof that the vision they had is not, in the opinion of some at least, fully there in the pictureCharacterizing in words what they thought they’d shown is an acknowledgement that the photograph is unclear – that it is not art.

Clearly, Adams is talking about the meaning of an image – what it is that an artist is trying to express in a particular image.  If a viewer has to ask what that photograph “means”, then either the photographer has failed or the viewer is incapable of grasping that meaning.  In either case, a verbal explanation isn’t going to be of much use.

In general, I tend to agree with that.  I do believe, though, that some images can benefit from some well-constructed, relevant verbiage.

My original question, however, was not directed at photographic expression or meaning.  I wasn’t asking anyone to explain what they’re “trying to say” in any given image.  My question was:  Why one image and not another?  What makes the one the “best” choice?

If there is a single photographer that I admire more than any other for his work, it’s James Nachtwey.  No, he doesn’t do “Fine Art” photography.  Yes, he’s a Photo-Journalist who primarily documents the effects of war and political violence.  He does this, I think, better than anyone else, past or present.  But his work is more than just documentary evidence of inhumanity; it’s Art.  If you’ve ever seen his work, you probably know what I mean.  If you haven’t seen it, visit his website.  Or better yet, watch his acceptance of the 2007 TED prize.  This 21 minute video offers insight into the mind of a photographer that you rarely, if ever, get.  If you watch the whole thing, you’ll see a couple of instances where he talks about the “why” of a photograph.  All in all, it’s an illuminating piece of artistic introspection.

Serious introspection, with respect to our own work, is something we should all be doing, regardless of the subject matter we choose.  And while “just because” might be easy, it simply doesn’t qualify.


8 Responses to ““Just Because” isn’t an Answer”

  1. Earl

    Paul, I’m probably a fool for stepping into this issue…

    “Serious introspection, with respect to our own work, is something we should all be doing, regardless of the subject matter we choose.”

    I’ve read this thought provoking posts a number of times and have let it simmer on the back burner of my mind. While I accept introspection with respect to MY own work is part of the process/journey for me personally I have to ask the question in regards to your statement above — Why?

    I guess I tend to push back against all inclusive statements — “all” should do anything. I suspect there are plenty of photographers out there that can be perfectly happy never having an answer better then “just because.” Does that make them less driven, less talented or non-professional? I can’t judge them.

    I’m not certain we’re hardwired in what’s driving us individually to take photographs. It may seem that way because the source of these motivations are hidden deep within our core or sub-consciousness seldom seeing the light of understanding. It may also be that this sub-consciousness is constantly being written and formed by deeply filter outside input so efforts to define a specific definition or rule is like trying to hit a moving target.

    IMO, my journey is just as rewarding as the destination — one I accept I may never reach to my fullest satisfaction. If I was to give a current best answer to your original question I’d have to say I take photographs because it provides a deep richness to my life and it provides a wonderful but hard to interpret connection with my core — the who I am. To stop taking photos would leave me feeling incomplete or unfinished in my journey. I know, soft mushy answers…but maybe that next photo will provide more insight and so I take the next and the next and the next…

    By the way, I really like this photo.

    • Paul Maxim

      Well, “foolish” or not (and I suspect not), I’m glad that you did. I honestly didn’t expect anyone to comment. In the photographic internet universe, this type of thing is usually avoided like the plague. “Controversey” is only tolerated when it has to do with equipment or technical issues. Even hint at questioning another photographer’s motivation or intent and everyone scurries for cover.

      With respect to my original question, though, it’s obvious that I’m not being very clear. For that I apologize. But what I am definitely not doing is asking why people photograph. If that were the question, then the answers I’ve listed above – as well as yours – would be reasonable, at least as a starting point. I say “starting point” because those reasons are, in my opinion, nearly universal. We all make photographs for those reasons. I mean, we must enjoy doing it, right? If we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t do it (unless someone was paying us). Similarly, it must also provide us with some kind of “richness” or “connection”. The camera is, after all, a link between the external world and our own personal “inner sanctum”.

      My question, then, is not why do you photograph, but why do you photograph what you do? And if you choose to spend a few hours making images of birds or flowers or street scenes or whatever, and then pick one from scores of others to represent that effort, my next question is why that particular photograph? What is it about that one image that separates it from all the rest? What do you see that makes it “work”?

      I think these are reasonable – and important – questions. For everybody. Unless, of course, you’re only taking pictures as “snapshots” because something looks pretty or because you want to document your cousin’s birthday party. In cases like that, the questions are irrelevant. How many of us in the blogosphere fall into that category, though?

      But if you make photographs because you’re trying to express something, something that is emotionally important to you, then I think you need to ponder these kinds of questions. Even if you only answer them internally. Because if you can’t answer this particular “why”, then how can you possibly know what it is you’re trying to express with your work? I would suggest that you can’t know. And if it’s fuzzy to you, how can it be clear to anyone else?

      Oh, and I’m glad you like the image. Now if I could only figure out the “why”……..

      • Earl

        It may well have been my own misinterpretation of the original question. Some of those particular “why’s” I can answer with a far degree of certainty, some I can venture an educated guess but others are still a total mystery to me. It’s those elusive answers along with me personally wanting to apply what I’ve already learned that continues to motivate me. Finding answers, stripping away the filters and uncertainties, often bring new questions. But then, how boring would it be if we had “all” the answers?
        Have a good weekend Paul.

  2. ken bello

    I have re-read this and your previous post several times as well as the comments from others who have really put a lot of thought into your question (as I have) and have finally come up with the best answer that I can possibly give, which is – I don’t know. There may be questions that are meant to be pondered but not answered. It may be a question of probability (something with which you have experience) that you (the photographer) are in a certain place in the universe, at a particular time, facing a particular direction when a particular event occurred (an event that you wished to record) with your camera. The photograph is the result of random phenomena. There would be many more variables in the equation, such as the photographers skill level, his frame of mind at the time, the equipment available to him and his personal interpretation of the event as it occurred. Then the question of “why” becomes a scientific question instead of a philosophical question.
    With this, I admit my failure to provide an adequate answer. If the question is philosophical, I am not wise enough to answer, if it’s scientific, I’m not smart enough to answer.

    • Paul Maxim

      I think the “I don’t know” response is probably closest to the truth for anyone answering honestly. Most of us simply don’t know. It’s not that we can’t know – we’ve simply ignored the question up to now or weren’t even aware of it. But I think the answer is there if we look.

      In my mind, it’s roughly analagous to other personal “preferences”. We all tend to like certain foods while avoiding others. We all have our own tastes in music or books or movies or even other people. And most often, we don’t know why. It’s damn near instinctive. A simple example: I’ve always absolutely hated licorice. Can’t stand it. Makes me gag, even. As far as I know, that’s always been true. I never had a “bad” experience with it – I hated it the first time it touched my lips when I was a kid.

      Am I “hardwired” that way? I don’t know for sure, but I expect that it’s at least some of the answer.

      So I would argue that your statement that “the photograph is the result of random phenomena” is at best only partially true. All of the variables you mention certainly play a part, but their combined effect would be zero if you weren’t attracted by something else, something that is an integral part of who you are. Even when you’re not carrying a camera.

  3. Cedric

    You already know my views on introspection Paul, and while I would not say that introspection is vital or important in terms of what we do with our lives I do see it as an activity that has the potential of deriving great benefits. Within the realm of creating art however, such questions are vital because the answers pertain directly to the artwork being created. Perhaps the ability to answer such questions is what differentiates the merely creative from the artistic. Who knows? In any case I started writing a post of my own on this topic, Hopefully I’ll get to finish it some time soon.

    By the way, great photo. A lot of people in Australia call those crepuscular rays, god light, maybe they call it that in your neck of the woods too. There is something quite spectacular about this sort of phenomena. For me it tends to impart a sense of awe at the grandness of it all. A single source of light illuminating all that is. Probably why they call it god light I guess.

    • Paul Maxim

      I have nothing to add to your first paragraph. I wish I’d said it that way…..and I can’t wait to see your post on the topic.

      Most often, people call them “godrays” here (except for the meteorologists who call them crepuscular rays, of course). They fascinate me because it reminds of the phenomena you see when you focus the sun’s rays with a magnifying glass. Only this would be one huge magnifying glass!

  4. The colour of wind « Plop

    […] Not, why does someone make photographs but rather, as Paul Maxim put it in a comment to his post on the subject, why do we photograph what we do? And if we choose to spend a few hours making images of birds or […]


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