I’ve been a photographer for many years now – or let me rephrase that, I’d been a camera owner for a while before I could be called a photographer. A subtle, yet significant difference. As I reflect, from the first moment I used a camera, I had been on an image making journey – across different stages, different directions, but not really any final destination. Just the other day, I was reading an interesting article by the adventure photographer, Alexandre Buisse*. And I can’t help but identify with it; these are my ramblings…
As I started my photographic journey with a Nikon N6006, I had no real artistic intent; I only wanted to record memories – the usual suspects of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays etc. Of course, I also wanted to be seen with a state-of-the-art (at that time) Nikon and a fancy lens. Those images were not expected to be beautiful in any way, but simply to show what was happening at a particular moment. I was a mere camera operator, and only expected to keep my pictures sharp and well exposed. This too was a challenge, considering digital photography wasn’t on the stage yet.
Then as some (or at times few, far and between, most) of the photographs came out well, I discovered my interest in creating beautiful images and started twiddling around with my camera, but without any real direction or technical knowledge. I usually followed the automatic (for Nikon, Program) mode of my camera but experimented randomly, delighted to discover the occasional good image, but still unsure of why it was good or how it was achieved. My portfolio now included the “cliché” images, of sunsets, mountains and flowers. This was a time of great creativity but with a relatively poor yield of good imagery. I pondered on the magic pill recipe to automatically make my photos great.
As I went along to the next stage, I realized that inadequate technical knowledge hindered my efforts and I made a deliberate decision to learn the craft and art of photography. I started focusing on technique and technology, started buying equipment (not too much though), perusing photography websites and read a lot on photography. My images improved dramatically, even to my untrained eye, at least from a technical standpoint, but they did not necessarily satiate me any more than before. My photographs were predictable and confined – rule of thirds, diagonals, and a frame within a frame determined most compositions. This was a strange and confusing time, as the unleashed zest and zeal of the previous stage, where everything was new and exciting, made room for the cold world of rules. Unbridled awe was replaced by the walls of imposition.
In a few years, I had an epiphany: focusing exclusively on technique was a complete cul-de-sac – a dead-end; composition, light and other such, not so tangible elements were equally (if not more so) critical in the success of an image. This was much more difficult to learn, since it was not nearly as quantifiable as the technical aspects of photography. I also realized that the transitions from one stage to the next are intriguing. They can’t be forecast or forced, and it is only in retrospect that I realized I’d progressed to the next level and had stopped worrying about whether my camera’s 12 megapixel resolution was good enough, for instance. I became passionate, at times possessive of my work. I also started creating something deeply personal, which not only had memories, but also emotions. I listened to others, yet sought my own voice. I didn’t feel the need to mass-produce lowest-common-denominator images, which may please crowds but didn’t truly express my voice. But I also believed that if I live in an ivory tower and never consider any critique, convinced of my own genius, I would stop growing as an artist and repeat myself endlessly.
I am here now. Reflective. Meditative. Contemplative.
So what lies ahead? Somewhere along the line (hopefully), I will acquire the technical and artistic tools I need and then contemplate about what to do with them. I might be able to create a beautiful photograph, but realize I need more – I need to express. I need my vision, my voice, my language. I was a craftsman, I need to become an artist.
Finally I guess, I might find my voice. I will have a message to express, and know the language of expression. I also realize I might never fully reach this stage, the elusive destination called mastery. In fact, I don’t believe such a destination exists.
Of course I have had goals, both tangible and more abstract. But as soon as I reached one of those goals, I realized that they were not the real reason I make photographs. What really mattered to me was the journey itself, the evolution. I am a photographer because I love to photograph.
To rephrase Descartes, I photograph, therefore I am.
(* Alexandre Buisse is an adventure photographer and a mountain climber, raised in the French Alps and now travels to the world’s major ranges from his base in Scandinavia. Alexandre’s work can be seen at http://www.alexandrebuisse.org.)