Why photography satisfies

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A photograph is like food: endless in variety, universally appealing or an extremely acquired taste; easily obtainable and available at a different level to suit every preference and budget. You can cook eat the same thing several days in a row and still enjoy it, or you can do something completely different every day. You can make it yourself or subcontract. There are no rules about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Moreover, both photography and food are something relatively limitless for us humans: both in the creation, and the consumption. Just as we need nutrition on a daily basis, we need regular visual stimulation – and though you can manage just fine if you never cook yourself, at some point, curiosity is likely to motivate you to create. The more effort we put in, the more likely we are likely to be satisfied with the result: many techniques or dishes are deceptive in simplicity: the fewer elements present, the more perfect they have to be. I frequently think of analogs like minimalist photography being similar to sushi: there are just four ingredients (fish, rice, wasabi, soy sauce) – yet each one can affect the final outcome drastically. An uneducated diner might not be able to say why a particular piece of sushi (or photograph) works, a skilled one will be able to say why. But both will appreciate it. And just as with food, good ingredients and good equipment help, but at the end, it’s still down to the skill and imagination of the chef.

*Masterclass alumni will know I use the cooking analogy a lot: if a finished print is like a plated meal, then the planning and ingredient-gathering process and pre-prep is scouting and seeing; cooking is capture; plating is post processing.

An 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. Sometimes it is the job/making money aspect ruined our passion of photography.
    I have friends have their full time job that making great money. and in weekend they can enjoy photography. These people’s skill is not worse than professional photographer. They have all kind of gears and photoshop skill. because they do not need to worry about money. they can purely enjoy create beautiful image. but as a professional photographer making living, I find my passion declined during years. have a good photoshoot idea? what is your budget? Every time the money come first in my mind. I many times think I wish I am a wealth that do not need to worry making money, then I would enjoy doing all kind of free photoshoot for people.

    • You have a good point. However, as much as working for free would be great altruism, it would also undermine the value of images as people would be conditioned to expecting it free and not appreciate the effort and cost involved. That is not sustainable.

  2. Nice article. I have to wonder whether chefs obsess over new pots and pans, or new kitchen knives. 😉

  3. No need to post this.
    Be careful about mentioning Ayn Rand. She, and her work, can evoke some pretty nasty responses — especially
    from those who’ve never read her. I think I once recommended to you a book called “What Art Is: The Aesthetic Theory of Ayn Rand”
    It is refreshing to read a book on Aesthetics which doesn’t reject her ideas out-of-hand (though the authors disagree). Unfortunately, having her name attached to it leads many to instantly dismiss it. It’s a shame you’re coming to Photography at a time when it’s so difficult to earn a good living from it — given your photographic talent and writing skills, you need a MacArthur grant to give you the time to develop your aesthetic (and aesthetic theory). Have you considered taking a year or two off to work at a university? You are certainly deserving of a position entitled Artist in Residence.
    ps: Are you familiar with the work of Robert J Steinberg? I knew him when he was manufacturing pre-coated Platinum paper. I think you’d enjoy each other.
    http://www.rjsteinberg.com/Night/index.html

    • I’ve wanted to see Steinberg’s work in person, but it seems not so easy to access. As for grants and development of aesthetics…well, that’s why we have to shoot for ourselves and make sure our clients share the same creative philosophy…

  4. Carlos Polk says:

    Ming,
    I always look forward to, and greatly enjoy this type of article from you. Philosophy is a passion with me, and these articles of yours are very well thought out and satisfying. The fact that they deal with philosophical ideas and my other passion – photography – is just about as good as it gets. Please keep it up.
    Highest Regards,
    Carlos

    • Thanks Carlos! We photographers are observers – and in observing, we theorise and we imply and we make causal connections. You can only do this effectively and in a way that influences the audience in the intended manner if you are continually also asking questions…

  5. I enjoyed reading this article. A timely reminder I’d have to say.

    “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.” – Couldn’t have phrased this better myself. But when you do get the hit, it’s pretty damn great! However, I think this only happens if your primary motivation is to make images, not collect gear. But I suppose you are talking about photographers here.

    • Thank you – yes, the creative hit is only meaningful if you value the output. The process can be satisfying, but it really is the means to an end and has to be somewhat divorced from your assessment of the image itself otherwise you may find yourself emotionally attached to images that aren’t worth it because of the investment put in.

  6. Martin Fritter says:

    Does it satisfy? Photography articulates a certain kind of problematic: nominally it’s easy, but, really it’s absurdly difficult, really quite frustrating. So it’s about learning how to see and learning how to wait. As for gear, the tactical, sensual side of it: I think it’s getting worse. The more minimal the better. Of course, I’m not trying to make any money from this and trying to limit how much I spend. I like my old Sweedish/German analogue cameras a lot. I can barely tolerate digital — although I’m trying.

    • That’s a good way of putting it: deceptively simple 🙂 I think it’s the ability to keep offering challenges that keeps us engaged: if you could master it in an afternoon, you certainly wouldn’t spend a lifetime doing it. I suppose that’s also the hallmark of any good game…

      The CFV-50C back turns that V series into the least digital digital camera you can imagine. And for that alone, I love it. 🙂

      • Martin Fritter says:

        CFV-50C price is not nuts, assuming the legacy Zeiss lenses are up to the job. (I don’t think you’ve gone into the legacy glass issue much yet.) You can switch out a A12 back and have a dual purpose set-up.

  7. I think that there`s additional angle on gratification through photography. One is consumeristic trend to have. One takes pictures to have what one thinks a slice of life and since photography was never so cheap and available everybody snaps,snaps,snaps. It`s especially evident when travelling. Loads of tourists try to snatch a bit of what they think is reality , and because of that, interacting and engaging much less with places they visit. I remember eons ago people travelled with very modest cameras if any but carried much often a binoculars then nowadays. The art of writing a appropriate and witty postcard depicting a motive supporting ones impression of place is also vanishing.
    Another angle is more artistic prosumeristic if I may say, the one of instant creativity. Choose some art filters, find some unearthy momentary lighting press the button and presto, you are an artist happy with yourself flushed with dopamine.
    It`s in a way all o.k. if it makes people happy without knowing why. Make Photos not War!
    p.s. Ming, you haven`s missed the point but the lack of responses prove the complexity of subject. It could be a theme for a whole symposium on neurologic-perceptual-antropologic-visual-environalistic-sociotechnological-…stop me, stop, aspect of dealing with ever changing facets of reality.

    • We need to remember that photographers are observers first and capturers second. We cannot capture what we cannot see. More looking and less shooting tends to be better for both immediate and later satisfaction…

  8. A very nice analogy, especially since I love cooking and photography. My cooking is evolving into a longer, slower style, and now I’m thinking about getting a 4X5 outfit.
    I’m curious Ming, your last “Film Diaries” article was done near the end of ’14, have you more or less quit film? You mentioned large format, have you ever gone down that path?

    • Thanks. Film: I pretty much stopped because of increasingly difficult availability, a lack of space to develop and a baby in the apartment…to be honest, I just don’t have the time. And sending the film out to a lab isn’t an option because there simply aren’t any good labs left in my city.

  9. James Scholz says:

    After reading your thoughts about making pictures I am reminded of the wonderful little book by Robert Adams, titled Why People Photograph. “At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting then we are.” He goes on to say we never quite achieve perfection, but the process rewards us by making what is greater a part of the biography by which we wish to be know.

  10. Kristian Wannebo says:

    I notice a very thin addition of sauce to the food in the photo…

    The opposite might be to compare a bottle of ketchup on every table to using HDR (or whatever) overmuch…

    🙂

  11. I have to say this is a difficult article to comment on, because you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head.

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  1. […] As my Quest went on I came somewhere on the net, guided, who knows. A quote of talented Ming Thein’s blog Why photography satisfies 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.  the blog here […]

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