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On Photography

The camera is an extremely versatile tool. On the one hand, it can be used to faithfully reproduce that which we see in front of us, and its output can be relied upon for documentation and analysis. On the other, its mechanisms can be used as creatively as a paintbrush on canvas. So what am I really doing when I'm pressing the shutter button; am I creating art, or engaging in science?

The fact that I feel the need to ask that question is--in the first place--an interesting phenomenon. We really do pick apart our existence these days, and while occasionally it provides us with insight we wouldn't have had otherwise, often it just confuses things that are truly quite simple. I think photography is one such case. The reality of the camera is that its technology does not depend on how it is being used; it works the same whether being used by a scientist or an artist. Yet it feels intuitive to draw a line between the objective and subjective uses of photography. If the camera remains the same, then what changes?

Central to this discussion is--naturally--the distinction between art and science. Surprisingly, I've found these terms to be relatively difficult to pin down to a neat-and-tidy definition. However, after many lengthy conversations, I think I've finally landed on something useful. Think about saying that someone "has something down to an art" or "down to a science." What do each of those phrases mean? To me, a task can be brought down to a science if it can be easily taught in discrete steps. Cooking, for example, is something that can theoretically be perfectly replicated with a detailed-enough recipe. It is, therefore, a science. An art, conversely, cannot be described in such terms and its execution instead relies on an intuitive understanding of the task at hand. Fishing might fall under such a definition of art, since master fishers can't tell you exactly how they achieve such amazing results, they simply follow a process they have come to understand on an intuitive level without ever having memorized its components.

How does this help us with our discussion of photography? Well, I think it's important to ask the question: can photography be boiled down to set of concrete steps that, if taken by any random individual, would replicate the great works produced by figures such as Ansel Adams? To me, the answer must be yes. Photographs can be studied and reproduced, and the result would be indiscernible if not identical to works we hail as artistic achievement of the highest caliber. Yet something will always be missing from such reconstructions: intention. Any doofus with a camera can stand, point, and shoot, but truly fantastic photographs are more than just pretty pictures; they're commentary. Without any intellectual processing occurring behind the lens, the subject in front remains nothing more than a thing in a place at a time.

I am forced to confront the reality that many photos I take--even the ones I consider aesthetically- or artistically-driven--are not products of inspiration but instead are the result of some basic tenets of photographic construction that I have learned both formally and informally over the years. After taking enough photographs, I've just come to know which framings looks good and which don't, and how different subjects can be best portrayed through the camera, so I can simply reproduce my past results and end up with photos I think are good. There really isn't any creativity to that process whatsoever. These photographs are often the most crowd-pleasing, for they check the boxes of what we humans appreciate as beautiful. It's hard not to be moved by a well-composed picture of a beautiful sunset over a dramatic landscape in an exotic faraway land.

If there is one thing I want for my photography, it's to move away from the phenomenon described above. I don't want my work to be easy to enjoy. I don't want to produce photographs that evoke nothing more than a myriad of affirmations on vacuous social media platforms. I want to capture something meaningful, and I want to communicate that meaning. It is my opinion that photographs have tremendous power, and that a skilled photographer can purvey a story with just a picture and no words. However, I am deeply demoralized by the the commonality of superficial photography in today's world (an epidemic to which I have regrettably succumbed and contributed). It is harder than ever to bring someone deep into a photograph and win their attention for more than just the cursory few seconds it takes to decide whether or not they "like" it. Therefore, in an attempt to inject intentionality and content back into my world of photography, I plan to use these blog posts to spell out exactly what particular photographs mean to me and what I hope they will mean to you.

In other words, I want to reject the idea of photography as science, and I want to use words to describe exactly why and how particular photographs should be considered as art.

I implore you: if I'm getting too mainstream and predictable with the photos I'm posting to this site, call me out on it. I won't be angry; I'll be appreciative.

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