I am always fascinated by the process of photographing. Not necessarily the technical aspects of it such as the exposure settings although that is interesting and of the joys of photography is how it melds the technical with the artistic. What sometimes interests me is why I photograph and what actually goes through my mind as I choose to take a particular photograph.
I have been thinking about this a great deal lately. I have been taking photographs for a long time now (many decades!) but very often I did not give much thought to my motivation – I just liked carrying a camera and taking photographs.
Lately, though and perhaps with age I am beginning to reflect more on why I take photographs. I have written a little bit about this before but here I want to focus on the actual process of photographing. What happens when I head out to take photographs? What goes through my head as I walk along? What makes me lift the camera to my eye in one case but then leave it on another occasion?
My jumping off point for these thoughts is Jerry L Thompson’s monograph “Why Photography Matters“. The photographer’s teeming brain, he suggests, has a vision of the world and is trying to make sense of it. This is something I recognise in myself. In the rest of my (non-photographic) life I like a sense of order and everything in its place. One of my habits is to endlessly play patience or solitaire on my iPad; there is something about trying to make order out of the random cards that appeals to me. That is what photography feels like to me; I am trying to make order out of the world around me.
Thompson suggests a photograper goes through an interative process as they take their photographs. They take a first imageand then they review that image and look at the world in a different light as a result. They then go on to take further photographs building upon their altered perception. Thompson does not explore why that first photograph is taken. In fact he suggests it does not matter.
It is that first photograph I was interested in. I am very conscious sometimes that I can take a little while to “warm up” as it were. Maybe it is a self conscious thing; it can seem a strange and certain circumstances intrusive thing to take a photograph. You are marking out as someone different to everyone else (unless you are at a traditional tourist hotspot where everybody is taking photographs!) Or it could be quite simply that I am not sure what to photograph or I am not motivated to photograph; nothing seems to appeal to me.
Once I get warmed up, though, I can be snapping for hours, paying no heed to what might be going on around me beyond observing what could make a great photograph.
A few weeks ago I decided to try an experiment. One evening I was photographing along the Embankment in London and every so often I stepped back from the photography and outside myself to reflect on what I was doing. I paused to make a few notes of my surroundings, what had caught my eye and the process of making each photograph.
Here is the journal I kept that evening along with some of the photographs I made. Reading it back a couple of things stand out. First of all, most of the note seem to have been taken earlier in the evening; writing took second place to the photographs as the evening wore on! Secondly and perhaps more importantly I noticed one of my key motivations standing out early on – the act of creativity, of making something that doesn’t yet exist.
On the 91 bus to go photographing along the Thames. At the moment the memory card is empty and none of the photographs I might take exist. I have a few ideas of what I would like to photograph. My plan is to walk along the north side of the Thames from Charing Cross to Blackfriars and to capture iconic riverside landmarks agains the setting sun and in the golden hour and the blue hour.
As the bus travels down Caledonian Road I am anticipating the return journey in a few hours time, sitting on the bus home and looking through the photographs I have taken. What will I have seen and how will I have captured it?
On the Embankment. Overhead dark clouds are rolling in from the west. There will not be much of a sunset. There is still some hazy blue light above Waterloo Bridge. It is high tide on the Thames and the water is choppy. Perhaps I could capture the motion of the waves?
It is half an hour until sunset. The dark clouds have blown away but the sky is covered by a low haze. I am standing by HQS Wellington, a white training ship moored on the Thames. The lighter colour of the bow contrasts with the darker water. A slower shutter speed might turn the water to a blur.
The sun has now set but there is still plenty of light left in the sky and I am still standing next to the white ship waiting to catch in the right light.
The sun has set and the city lights have risen. I am walking back along the Embankment pausing on the way to photograph Waterloo Bridge. The moon is almost breaking through the haze above the London Eye.
Trafalgar Square. It is after dark now but the Square is busy. I wander around the fountains watching how the light plays upon the water, and the way the reflection of the National Gallery blurs to an abstract as the water ripples.
On the bus home still photographing out of the upstairs front window.
Almost took 100 pictures although many of them are variations on a theme. Later on I will need to identify which are worth keeping.
After a major editing process, here are a few of the photographs I took that night with the comments I made about why I was taking that photograph.
HQS Wellington – I was interested in the contrast between the chains, the hull and water. I stood here for some time as I wanted to get a version that blurred the water to emphasise that contrast
London Eye and Waterloo Bridge – taken after dark. I have photographed several of the bridges along the Thames that are illuminated. I was pleased to see the moon through the hazy clouds. With a little bit of strolling around I was able to position it just about right with the street lights on the bridge and the London Eye.
Old phone box – somewhere along the Embankment. I have been looking at the works of Saul Leiter and Ernst Haas and how they use light and colour. This might have been inspired by their work.
Hungerford Bridge – looking up at the tension wires as I walked along the Embankment, a moment to look up, quickly photographed and then moved on.
Diversion/road closed – yellow and red signs. Towards the end of the evening I was walking up Northumberland Avenue towards Trafalgar Square and a bus home. I was attracted to the colours of the two road signs. I took various versions with pedestrians, cyclists and cars in the background. I think this one works the best.
National Gallery – reflected in one of the fountains of Trafalgar Square. My evening taking photographs was almost done but I still wanted to take a few more. I took numerous versions of this image, some hand held and some on tripod.
It was fascinating to step outside myself a little bit. It made make think a little more about what and how I photograph. It also made me focus more on the subjects I chose and what I was trying to achieve with each of them.
If like me you have sometimes wandered why you take photographs and you are looking to make sense of your own photography it might be a useful exercise for you to try as well.