The Value of Photograph
Discussing the Photograph
Photographs have immense value personally and to us as a society. They are the way we capture and reflect our lives and stories. They are also how we understand the world and a way of sharing our experience of it.
Since the advent of photography with the early 1800s, we’ve used photography to record and celebrate our lives and surroundings.
That record is on the walls of museums and homes, within the tissue leaves of archives, inside shoeboxes under beds and held on the mobile phones in our hands. We cherish our photos and keep them close, revisiting them and reaping enjoyment over long periods.
A photograph is always a portal in time and light. It is a way to see that moment again or to share that moment with others. For fine art photography, this is an opportunity to share the photographer’s experience. As a photographer, I am inspired by this opportunity to share and I look for the sights that captivate, surprise and communicate.
Photography is an extraordinary medium that can be clinical, analytical, celebratory, political, iconic and abstract. As our personal vision, perception and memory varies, so does photography. This is perhaps one of the key elements that have enabled photography to be so universal across cultures and communities. It also lets us reflect and value the variety of imagery around us, from truthful depictions to exciting distortions.
This is an exciting field in the discussion of the value of the photograph as it’s a realm where we can remind ourselves of the act of looking - unconscious, idle or mindful - the chance to be open to the visual phenomenon around us and a challenge to the photographer to find a way to surprise and remind the viewer at the same time through capturing the reflection on the water, the distortion on glass, or the minuscule detail which seems impossible to record. Those visual phenomenon that we half notice in passing, like the fleeting flicker on a bus window or low winter sunlight crossing our vision, are a joy to photograph and share.
We have a deep and ingrained relationship with photography on very personal and highly public levels. Photographs a way to share private memories with loved ones at a distance. This was so important, initially, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as families lived the slow process of immigration, swapping continents without knowing if they would see their relatives again. It is equally as important in this century when we live much more dispersed lives, where a WhatsApp photo of a child’s first step has taken the place of the doorstep update.
Seeing the World Through Photography
Photographs are also the way we learn about the natural world. We use our experience of our own natural surroundings to ‘read’ photographs of other places and to understand the feel and geography of that place, to learn and build an understanding of places like Antarctica and the deep sea where we cannot easily see with our own eyes. Photographs are also the only way we can go some way towards experiencing the hardships of extreme situations such as war, disasters and famines, as many of us know through the emblazoned images of children running from a napalm strike in Vietnam by Huynh Cong Ut;
or the distress caused by Hurricane Katrina, which you can see in this exceptional selection by Alice Yoo over on My Modern Met.
Photography has an inextricable interplay with memory, and often the photo becomes the definitive memory. The perfect birthday shot is the image triggered in the mind's eye during family reminiscence and the iconic photo of the Sierra Nevada becomes the most prominent collective reference for millions when used by Apple for one of their operating systems.
Because of photography’s importance in our lives, each of us has this ability to interpret a photograph and for me, this is a powerful reason to work in this medium as an artist. I often work in an abstract or conceptual way but want my photographs to be accessible and to prompt discussion. With photography, we start with our familiarity and get moving from there. This means that people can easily progress from their initial reaction to a photographic image to considering the structure, atmosphere and composition.
In my artistic process, I am considering the colour choices, the cropping and layout. I watch out for how to use pattern, line and contrast within each frame. How to give clarity to the message by foregrounding the main subject matter, or to dissolve the ‘reality’ of the shot by cropping out recognisable elements, in order to luxuriate in the abstract colour fields.
As a lens that gathers and refracts the light, a camera is perhaps the machine the most like our anatomy. The ocular doubling as the photographer makes a sightline with the viewfinder is a ritual that gives us a superpower to keep that moment of sight. This mechanical process gives way however to magic as it always holds both an element of truth and an element of the photographer. It's a medium which is faithful to both seamlessly.
Photography in our Day to Day Lives
No wonder people want to own photographs. They play such an important role in our lives and have so much possibility. Owning a photograph brings that slice of visual experience into your living space. It is a way to create that portal for thought and for enjoyment in your daily routine. The chance to live with the imagery means building on initial reactions and inferences, getting to know that image over time and over changes in our lives.
Those changes in perception happen on a personal level and a global level over time. Photos of national parks taken in the 1940s by Ansel Adams now have new meaning as we face environmental decline,
and work by photographer William Henry Jackson helped establish the first national park in 1972.
Images by Bruno Barbey of 1968 Parisian student protests come to mind when we hear our youth asking for answers 50 years later;
and photos by Dorothea Lange of the rural poor in the 1930s are mirrored by the reportage of food bank lines in contemporary news.
The meticulously crafted surrealist images by Man Ray become a marker for that movement and for the reminder that we can think differently.