Reasons I photograph, 2020 edition

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In the past, I’ve written about both personal and general motivations for photographing; I’ve also discussed a sort of real time seeing checklist of sorts, which isn’t so much underlying reasons for picking up then camera as what we do once we have it in hand and that initial impetus has happened. In general, a given scene or subject must offer sufficient emotional or intellectual motivation to make us pick up the camera, aim it in the right direction and go through the whole process of both framing and curation* and the requisite effort. The more experienced one is as a photographer, the higher that threshold becomes because the number of subjects you’ve seen and/or photographed in the past only increases. One’s personal ‘activation energy’ increases, if you will. I’ve not only photographed a lot of things, but at this point in my career I’ve also photographed everything I’ve wanted to and beyond – so I figured it worthwhile to discuss what personally motivates me to get out the camera these days.

*Really, the same thing but one happens before the shutter is preset, and the other, after.

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There was a short period of visual detox (coinciding with a very busy period in the early days of the watch business when we were few in number and a lot of things were in the process of being set up) where I carried only my phone; that resulted in moving to the dual-camera iPhone because there were increasing times when I wanted a longer perspective, and 28mm-e simply can’t be composed to read as a telephoto no matter how skilled you are. That was probably the point at which I started shooting for myself again: the visual scrapbook series is what resulted. But more importantly, it marked a shift from a huge amount of deliberation and planning and processing for every shot top something more fluid and spontaneous (and shock horror, SOOC JPEG). In essence, it was the change from full blown commercial at the highest levels, back to quasi-amateur – but with the benefit of knowledge and that hard-wired process of compositional discipline that most amateurs never acquire (because there’s no real motivation to do so if your livelihood isn’t at stake if you miss or flub an unrepeatable shot).

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Two other things were (and still are) happening in parallel. My daughter continued to grow up, and I was travelling to more new places as part of the watch business – which was itself also maturing. I won’t use the argument of wanting to stop time for either case, but rather collect mnemonics to remind me of the journey in the future – as well as provide context and story to observers, friends and family. I think there’s an important difference here: if you’re seeking to make the definitive image that encapsulates a single moment, idea or higher concept, then some degree of planning and dedication to the photographic process is inevitable. It means you have to be fully committed to making the image and necessarily somewhat detached from the rest of what’s going on; this doesn’t work so well if you’re also one of the key players in the events taking place – as I am here.

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In some ways, it’s much like the cinematic style of photography in which one is trying to capture and convey a mood and a scene that’s part of a sequence of events rather than the photojournalistic style in which a single image has to convey the entire story on its own; you have the benefit of before and after and a sequence. It means that practically one can afford to sacrifice a bit of narrative discipline for spontaneity and not consuming so much mental overhead that you are not present in the event itself. (This is of course the eternal debate as a photographer whether one should be an observer or participant; the tradeoff being omnipresence against intimacy.) For the portion of my photographic journey before it became a career, I started as participant and slowly transitioned to observer; my images became more structured and polished (and commercial-friendly) but arguably also less emotional.

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I now have the luxury of transitioning back to mostly making images that have an audience and clientele of one – myself. This means photography is secondary to other objectives, be it parenting or running a company; it means that I no longer carry a full set of hardware plus backups ‘just in case’ because I must get the shot in the name of reputation and professionalism; it means that I can choose to carry and work with whatever appeals to me on the day, and enjoy the fluidity of going light. It means that if I can find a SOOC JPEG setup that pleases me – which I have for the Nikon Z7, which has become my go-to – I no longer need to post process images unless I feel it absolutely necessary to make me happy. There are definitely a lot of images I see but don’t have the ability to capture because of these choices, but I also have the experience to know that I could have captured them should I have wanted to or needed to.

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Given all of this, the obvious question becomes – what kinds of subjects and scenes still motivate me to actually capture an image?

Beyond the necessary product images for my company and the few commissioned client jobs I choose to take on, I think the content of my images can be categorised into one or more of the following buckets:

  1. People who are emotionally significant to me doing something of significance to them or me or us, or displaying an unusual emotion;
  2. Arrangements of color and light that are arresting for their visual balance, harmony, or degree of abstraction;
  3. Commonly encountered objects in unusual light;
  4. Unusual details of a larger whole that in themselves encapsulate the essence of that whole, e.g. distinctive design features of an object, or a highly stylised interpretation of a landmark;
  5. Scenes with strong layering or wimmelbild; the kind of thing that has strong fractal elements and recursion;
  6. Highly transient events or states of an object that are dynamically unstable and only exist for a very short period of time, e.g. the flow of water or clouds;
  7. Strongly abstracted interpretations of an objects that are abstracted to the point of total ambiguity;
  8. ‘Record images’ – unusual things to be shared for discussion, documents, receipts.

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The images I’ve chosen to illustrate this post of course fall into all of these categories, though #8 tends to be a bit more pragmatic and seldom of any photographic metic (and consequently not included here). I still review my ‘take’ on a regular basis and curate near-monthly portfolios of images I find exceptional, though this becomes increasingly difficult and yields ever-diminishing returns even though I’m creating just as much raw material as ever on an absolute basis. It’s probably a consequence of both returning to more experimentation as well as continuing to raise standards. I focus less on absolute peak image quality now because I have the luxury of simultaneously not having to do so, but being able to do so if I need to. In short: 2020 is the year I probably return to seeing and creating as an amateur, in the purest sense of the word. MT

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  1. Very helpful essay articulating what I feel as I bumble my way through life. I post pictures to illustrate my words and send photos as postcards and I read stuff like this to try to improve. Thank you.

  2. Michael says:

    I hope you continue to make it an audience and clientele of one-plus. There are still plenty of us feckless flaneurs who want to tag along.

    • In a way…it’s the same philosophy I’m using to approach the watch business. Make something that satisfies you, share it with the people who share your philosophy – it’s a free world and I don’t need the social media popularity 🙂

  3. I’m probably best described as an advanced amateur. But the compositional discipline I’ve developed even through that makes shooting with my iPhone a lot more enjoyable, yielding pleasing results.

  4. Good to hear some shoutouts for Jay Maisel here, and that actually ties in with a question I had.

    One of my favourite quotes of his (though I’m sure he’s not the first to articulate it) is something to the effect of “If you’re not your own toughest critic, you are your own worst enemy”, which I agree with 100 per cent, and you say something similar when you refer to “continuing to raise standards”.

    Now that you’re shooting fundamentally for yourself, do you find that you “raise standards” in a different way to when you were shooting for other people? I’ve never done the latter (OK, once or twice when asked and always pro bono, as I’ve never set out my stall as a professional photographer), so I’d be interested to know if there’s any difference.

    • I don’t think I’ve raised standards so much as changed the criteria of arbitration – I decide what’s good and even the quirky stuff that only appeals to me is now allowed out. Sometimes I might relax certain technical criteria in a tradeoff for emotional impact or feel; more so if the image/subject means something to me. Not so bothered if the idea doesn’t translate for the majority of people.

  5. For me, aside from the objects of my photography, there is the process of photographing them itself, which I also consider important, perhaps most important of all. The experience of careful attention to the process of photographing is itself an invaluable experience and also a “result” of a kind. In addition, such attention to the process can (and usually does) be seen in the resulting photos themselves. Of course, as a close-up photographer who regularly stacks (sometimes hundreds of layers), there is a Zen quality to this extended process that I savor.

    • The approach to the process can influence the process and the results – that I agree with; sometimes you need calm, sometimes you need energy. Different approaches for different intended outcomes…

  6. Thank you. Exceptional article in its addression of balance. The best, most powerful photos (argue with me, somebody?)
    are ones that contain and convey emotion, and that emotion must exist to be identified, captured, and presented.
    (echo of Jay Maisel’s quip….”if your photo doesn’t excite you, why should it excite me?”
    We all have our own reasons, and FWIW, I share some of your list; #’s 2-7, not so much #1 because I’m single, not so much #8, but will do it to warm up;
    add/replace with “human condition”, roughly divided into situations where people express themselves thru self absorbtion (child play, rodeo/other athletes concentration),
    and relating to one another -conversations.

  7. Beautiful images and thought provoking commentary. Thank you. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on what will become of your images. Jay Maisel said in an interview he had “trashed over 2 million slides”.* I found this alarming and sad but respect his right to do as he pleases with his work.

    • I assume that’s the effect of curation – why keep images you don’t like or want to show?

      My own collection: I honestly have no idea. I guess I will have to see if my daughter (or anybody else I trust in future) is interested enough to continue stewardship…

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