Why photography satisfies

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Photography is like food: the variety is endless, and it can satisfy on many levels. But how many of us can make world-class, award-winning food in seconds with minimal equipment?

My earlier article on why we photograph led me to spend a little more time thinking specifically about what it is about the photographic process that is enjoyable. It seems that it’s engaging on many levels – firstly, there’s the anticipation of buying new equipment, and continually pursuing gear – I suppose you could call that the ‘collectors’ itch’. As much as I see cameras as tools, I admit there’s a certain satisfaction in finding, acquiring and owning/ using something rare; the F2 Titan, for example. Like every other accessory or object we choose to use – it signals something about the tastes of the owner. (There’s also the ego-stroking fact that it promotes jealousy amongst other photographers, but I’m going to ignore that and say it really is all about the image.

Then there’s the simple tactile pleasure of handling some of the objects and paraphanelia associated with the hobby – I’m talking about things that go beyond cameras and lenses, though these are certainly the two main categories; but tripods, flashes, bags, filters, grips, cases, straps…the list goes on. There’s a reason why cameras like the Leicasonics and [Hasselblad Lunar] make some sense even if they are just rebadged/ redesigned base cameras; it’s the materials and tactile feel. I doubt you could say a basic, entry-level DSLR is an especially nice thing to use – frankly, it’s soulless – but to somebody coming from a compact – the sound and feel of a real shutter is a significant improvement on a recorded noise, or nothing – at least until they realize that stealth and silence are golden, and then we go back around in a circle again in search for the smoothest, most quiet shutter available. Personally, I still like the feel of a good mechanical shutter…

Gear aside, one of the huge attractions of photography over other pursuits is that it can occupy as much or as little time as you want it to: you can take one quick shot a day, which perhaps takes a few seconds, or you can quite easily spend your entire day shooting. Better yet, you can have your photographic eye active even when you’re doing something else: if you see a composition walking to work, then there’s no reason you can’t stop for a few seconds to record it. I know this was one of the reasons why I began to shoot in the first place: I didn’t have time to do something that required long continuous blocks of time due to my ridiculous working hours, but I did need a creative outlet (I was in audit/ accounting at the time) – my solution was to pack the camera and shoot on the way to work, shoot at lunch, and shoot on the way home – I’d get about an hour and a half in total.

This is not to say you’d get good at it if you just spent a few minutes a day shooting; you do of course have to learn the ropes in other ways, such as what makes a good image, the technical requirements of how to create the images you want, and figuring out what it is you want to create in the first place. But of course the beauty of the hobby is that you can be doing these things at times when you can’t wield a camera – like on an airplane, for instance. And once you get tired of that, you can start writing about it…

Humans are also social, and increasingly, visual creatures. Part of this is simply down to our biology; part of it is down to the emerging social media trends and increasingly demanding lives we lead that reduces the amount of time we have to spend on any single activity. Visual communication is the fastest and most direct way to say something. Undoubtedly, proliferation of social media and the availability of widespread broadband over the last few years has meant that high-quality images are quite painless to view, and more importantly, share. (Interestingly, ten years ago, this would have been mostly unimaginable; now, my tech-phobic mum shares her photos on Facebook from her iPad, and appreciates the value of image stabilization and wide angle lenses.) We capture things both to show our points of view with our friends and family, but also to document and share anything out of the ordinary: just look at the enormous number of ‘top 10 most [fill in the blank]’ photo lists shared on Facebook.

Here comes the psychological element: everybody wants to be recognized and important; some more so than others. One of the ways to quickly achieve this is to have attribution to the creation of something recognized – i.e. an image – whether this recognition is due to the subject or composition doesn’t matter; but it can be addictive*. This of course leads to more and more posting…and greater and greater recognition required to satisfy the ego.

*(I bet all of you with social media platforms have wondered or paid attention to the number of visits, hits or likes received with obsessive interest at one point or another…I’ll admit I have, and still continue to do so with the site to figure out what’s of interest to my readers.)

We all have ego; it’s part of human nature. It’s not satisfied unless the kudos are attributed to us because of something we did: that’s the creation part. There’s nowhere near as much satisfaction in sharing somebody else’s image – if anything, perhaps even a small streak of ‘why didn’t I see that?’ jealousy – compared to receiving the same kudos for one of your own images. The need to create is stronger in some of us than others; the medium of photography allows for this creation in various levels of difficulty from instant gratification (the embodiment being Polaroids and SOOC JPEG snapshots) to extremely long-burn, slow-rewards – think of ordering a custom large-format camera that takes months to arrive, then having to travel for many days to reach a remote location, wait hours for the right light, shoot several sheets of film on an exposure that takes minutes (perhaps there’s water involved) and then travel home to spend more hours in the darkroom stand developing, fixing, washing, waiting for the film to dry, then making countless prints to perfectly finesse contrast…

In short, creation is like a drug: the easier it gets – both physically and mentally – the bigger the hit you’ll find yourself needing in the long run. I’m increasingly shooting a lot of still lifes because I can control light, subject position and composition, rather than just having to find it. I have to think more; I may possibly achieve better results and higher satisfaction, but I do have to work much harder, too.

It seem that perhaps Maslow summarized it correctly in his pyramid of needs; we can apply them to photography and other hobbies, too. In ascending order, we start with physiological/ basic requirements; safety; love/ belonging; esteem and finally self-actualization. Photographically, we have the gear, we have the ability, we have the friends/ core circle we socialize with, public recognition or commercial/ professional success, and finally, being able to be contented with the work we create – and of course having the ability to create that work solely for ourselves in the first place. (At this point, anyone who hasn’t read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead should probably do so.)

A lot of pursuits stop short before they hit the top two tiers because they are too inaccessible; think of professional football, for instance. Or worse still, motorsport or aerobatic flying. Photography, on the other hand, has low barriers to entry and can be appreciated by all; we can do it for as long or as short as we like, and for every photographer, the final gatekeeper to the delete button is themselves – what’s not to like? MT

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Comments

  1. No, I’ve not read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, I didn’t even know about it.
    But I do understand from the long Wikipedia article why you refer to it Ming.

    Curiously, another book comes to my mind,
    “Mr God, this is Anna” by Fynn.

    Runaway Anna, 4 years, moves in with Fynn’s family in the 1930-s in London. She dies aged 9 in an accident.
    She is a philosopher, scientist, very creative and _very_ much alive.

    The way you write about creativity and photography makes me think of how Anna explores the world, often tries to make others aware of it’s wonders and distilles it into her own inner world – and often finds or creates expressions of her thoughts in the real world.

    What wouldn’t she have done with a camera…

  2. Another interesting article. These thoughtful (almost philosophical) articles are one aspect that set you apart from other photographers that blog or bloggers that photograph – and I enjoy them immensely. Thank you for taking time to write down your thoughts and sharing them with us.

  3. “but to somebody coming from a compact – the sound and feel of a real shutter is a significant improvement on a recorded noise, or nothing – at least until they realize that stealth and silence are golden, and then we go back around in a circle again in search for the smoothest, most quiet shutter available” Spot on..Guilty as charged here..LOL

  4. Like it, or deride it as some do, those special editions from Leica address that tactile feel, and the desire for something special. Shame about the pricing, in that many of those may never actually be used. I could hope to see a Hermés edition in the wild, but it’s unlikely.

    Since you mention large format again, it seems that you are becoming a bit more interested. ;) One exception I will take with the stereotype is that not everyone strives to go somewhere remote to photograph something. Obviously people in cities can long to escape, and I think that also speaks to the popularity of those types of images. There are also those of us who embrace the city and the signs of the hand of man, yet we are not street photographers.

    Camera automation has been so good that there are now photographers who can create compelling images with absolutely no idea of what their camera is doing. A friend of mine from college, with whom I shared many painting classes, picked up a camera a few years ago. She asked me once if I could suggest anything to her, though after viewing her images I didn’t see anything worth suggesting. So instead my suggestion was to keep using a camera with which she felt comfortable, and only learn something of technology when she could not figure out why the camera did not respond the way she wanted it to. There are amongst us some artists with cameras, though they are often not technically astute, yet they can create some wonderful images. These people are the opposite of the technicians in photography. Now if the two approaches were to coincide, then even more magic can happen.

    Originally I just photographed to get reference material images for my illustrations and painting. I did understand how a camera functioned, thanks to my grandmother explaining how to use a camera when I was little. After I moved into photography as a profession, I stuck with smaller equipment. Eventually I ended up with a large format camera, and quickly realized using that was like going to a location and drawing. I have maintained a slow and deliberate approach to photography, much the same way I approach illustration, though that is the way I learned it. To me learning to draw felt more like crawling before walking, and I still think drawing can have a huge impact on the way people learn photography. Unfortunately it is often more about the gear, or the technology, than it is about drawing with light. ;)

    • I’m not sure I agree with you on the Leica special editions/ tactility. Granted, they’re better than most, but they do not give me any confidence in reliability/ durability; I’ve handled the Hermes and frankly I’d be quite afraid to use it not because of the price – assuming I could afford one in the first place – but because I don’t think the materials and finish would hold up to serious use, nor would they age well. (And you can of course kiss your ‘investment’ goodbye the minute you take it out of the box.) I’d say cameras like the GR, E-M1, 1DX, D4 etc come closer to this feeling of indestructibility.

      “…only learn something of technology when she could not figure out why the camera did not respond the way she wanted it to. “
      This is a very good approach, and probably the one most people should take. Not that most will ever get to the point where they even know that the camera can do something different to what was programmed…

      I dabbled with illustration and design work (the latter of which I still do occasionally on a consultant basis) when I was younger. And in the early days of photography, I was taught by a great illustrator who also happened to be a photographer.

      Right now there’s one thing that’s keeping me from large format: the need to expose the digital back between every shot, which makes me concerned about dust/ damage…

  5. Ming that plate of sashimi makes me salivate. I try to avoid the gear as a luxury object thing as much as possible, despite the luxury prices, and try view it as a tool. The rest of your discussion about creativity as a drug, well all I can say is guilty, big time guilty here. Since I am not attempting to do paid gigs or even sell prints, all I get in return are comments and lots of them are good.

    Oh darn, I cant get that lovely plate of fish out of my head.

    • I think you should go find a Japanese restaurant for dinner!

      Creativity definitely is a drug. It’s one of the few things that has both endless potential and few – if any – negative ramifications for the creator. I suppose the only potential downside is that we put so much of ourselves into the whole process that it can be rather disheartening to find out that we can’t please everybody all the time…even more so when the critic has zero skin in the game.

      • Ming, Friday I had a very nice dinner in a Thai/Japanese place in Houston. A lot of creativity is about trying to do something that is both different and desirable. With so many people running around with digital cameras and the ease of publishing on the internet that is difficult. Every important landmark becomes trite. I suppose things like that don’t matter to the hordes of documentary nature photographers out there. So, I go to the zoo and take pictures of puddles, partly to do something different and partly because I think zoo animals are pathetic, even if they get fed regularly and don’t have to worry about predators. At least if I can shoot puddles I will have something left to do after street photography is outlawed. After that I can learn to play golf or go to assisted living…

  6. I really like your words in this post, I think this year is when the need, the drug as you mention, for creativity has hit me the hardest. And yeah, blogging has definitely influenced that, and I see how it applies to all other areas and hobbies in my life. Cheers!

  7. andygemmell says:

    “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
    ― Ansel Adams

    For me, this is “why I photograph” and “why it satifies”…….

  8. I’m not fuly agreeing with your tactile remark.

    Unfortunately, in the world where we are living people are forced in into a lot of hyping (…you need go full frame! Buy retro!), styling (a fashion designer logo on the camera), spec pressure (why do we all suddenly need to replace our camera with a newer and better XX MP-version?) to feed the commercial machine of companies and make the numbers on their balances. Look at the Nikon Df, it is a such a fake concept for all those that have known the FM-era and still a lot of people will buy it.

    So, strange enough people don’t buy with a sober mind and I’m pretty sure, that the ones caring for tactile feelings of a camera are no big crowds, rather the ones that truly care for what they are buying.

    • You might well be right. With no relative point of comparison, it’s difficult to tell the difference between good and bad. I refer to the tactile point because I very much *can* tell the difference…

  9. I am hungry … for photos

  10. A like and a comment for your ego, and for mine. I like the real sound of the shutter of my mass-product APSC-DSLR, that’s important. And yes, it’s an addiction. I’m a collector, too, but on a low hobby-level.
    But there’s one more item, I’m perhaps missing in your very interesting article (perhaps I have to read it again).
    It reminds me of the freedom of my youth, when I started with SLR Photography with my beloved X 700 in 1983. There was the little unspeaken family photo contest, much fun and not much money for the Pics. Perhaps now photography is my little daily therapy. You can entry your own world. Just a few thoughts… ;)

  11. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said there’s not as much interest in other peoples images on social media. I remember leaving comments once without really looking at the images I was commenting on, mainly to get them to respond to mine. I came to my senses.

    • That’s because there are simply too many images, period; as a result nothing much gets that much individual attention these days. It has to really stand out, which has both raised the bar overall and opened things up to perhaps the less scrupulous when it comes to image manipulation. A lot of historical images aren’t that great compositionally or technically, but they’re remarkable because there is an image at all.

  12. I really want that plate of sashimi!

    • I should have caveated the title: photography satisfies the creator, but not necessarily the target audience…it can be used to generate feelings of extreme desire instead!

  13. Roger Wojahn says:

    I love your honesty, Ming and while-heatedly concur. It’s nice to acquire enough skill that you know you can create a gratifying photograph. You can experiment as much as you want and no one imposes any limits. Too, you can do it right up to the very end of your life!

    The Fountain Head is one of my top five favorite books of all time coincidentally! (I have a first edition!) 😊

    • I admit to some jealous feelings over your first edition…

      That book is one of my favourites because it somehow manages to be simultaneously depressing and inspiring, but clearly Rand also understands how difficult it is to be a creative person, make a living, and balance that with the kind of integrity that still allows you to live with yourself…

  14. I like that “create work solely for ourselves” that is the fun & intrigue of photography. Nice post!

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