A friend said to me a few months ago, “why photography”? I didn’t know how to reply, because he didn’t clarify exactly what he meant. Was it supposed to prompt some kind of self-reflection, or a more simple declaration of why I like it? I don’t think he realised himself how the question could be considered in different ways, but it’s the kind of thing I like doing and after gestating in my unconscious for a while, I’ve realised something about the art of photography that’s quite interesting. I’ll finish with that, after covering some of the other stuff.
First, I enjoyed photography as a teenager and then it got lost a little as I did other things, starting with an academic degree in English and Psychology. I like the idea that I’m revisiting a former part of me, and affirming it.
Second, I’ve always had artistic inclinations and an art teacher once said I could have been good. I probably could have, if I’d pursued it. Prior to that, in the early age classroom, it was always my stuff that was displayed on the wall and I was once requisitioned to do stuff for a special occasion. But later I always felt frustrated with pencils and paint, and didn’t with photography. I enjoyed the way there was a craft element to it, in terms of what you did in the darkroom, through which you expressed your ideas. Photoshop is effectively a digital darkroom, without the fuss.
Third, there’s a cool factor to it. I don’t mean posturing and posing, I mean it’s just a cool thing to enjoy for oneself. This is related to the technology of the camera, and the power it gives you. It’s an extension of something about you, your vision and creativity.
Fourth, it’s nice to have a creative activity as part of one’s life. When I did my BA degree, I felt slightly frustrated that I was analysing and deconstructing literature that I knew was not, ultimately, explicable or even meaningful in those intellectual terms. It was a subjective, feeling, emotional thing and its satisfactions for the majority of literature readers concern that and not an academic understanding of narrative structures. A fellow student once said she deliberately didn’t study English, for that reason – it would spoil the fun of it. When I did my PGCE I remember thinking the art guy on the course was having more fun than I was because his teacher training was, again, based on a creative pursuit.
Fifth, I like the way photography is a medium that intercedes between the world and myself, as it does for everyone, and then we use that as a meeting ground for discussion. We had some great discussions on my Photography MA. The same point applies to literature but it’s more direct, dealing more closely with the realm of emotion and feeling with for example characters in novels and the sensuality of a poem. You are expected, when studying literature, to have what is effectively a moral response and the ability and willingness to articulate it. That process enters into photography too but differently; the comparison is very complex and I don’t want to address it here.
Anyway, note what I said about being willing and able to articulate your feelings about stuff that comes up when studying literature, which it always does. And note that I said it’s problematic: because for an eighteen or nineteen year old, it’s quite demanding when at that age you’re negotiating the world in all kinds of ways and the process of literary response is an add-on complication. That’s difficult for those who teach English and is partly why, while it was my original teaching subject, I didn’t do much of it. It’s quite hard trying to engage adolescents with that kind of material, certainly in any educational context that is remotely challenging. There are probably lovely New England schools full of happy smiley youngsters who enjoy talking about how they feel about poetry. There are no doubt schools in this country that are the same, especially the private ones where you don’t have to be a drugs counsellor or black belt in crowd control. But as most teachers will tell you, much of UK education is a tough and even daunting situation to be in, and if you teach English that’s magnified.
Sixth, there’s a romance to photography hence the title of this article. It’s like the poet, wrestling with feelings and words at his candle lit desk. Or indeed, in my case, the mountain wanderer when I then join the practice of photography to walking exploration. There’s just you, a camera, and an elusive subject you’re trying to capture. Not all photography is romantic, much of it is commercial/banal, gruelling, and some of it even dangerous, but I think it’s an archetypal factor that lies at its heart: the romance of a camera and taking pictures.
Which leads me, finally, to my recent realisation. I am by nature an introvert, and the extrovert skills I have were wrought by hard work. Introversion and extroversion are quite important psychological categories, recognised by no less a person than Carl Jung. He described it as a characteristic inclination either outwards into the world, or inwards to thoughts and feelings, like the poles of a magnet or electric current: we are hard-wired to be generally one way or the other.
Photography is inherently an introvert thing, seen in my preceding reference to its romance. All art rests on a well developed introvert dimension, an interior life from which it comes. Call it the muse, call it the unconscious, but it’s a reservoir of possibilities whereby creativity translates introvert energies into an extrovert i.e. tangible form. And photography is a perfect medium for doing this, transforming something inside you into something external to you – a photograph – which expresses your ideas in a direct tangible way in relation to the world. Susan Sontag once said photography was a kind of meta medium, capable of addressing any subject and incorporating aesthetic elements of other media notably painting and film. I agree with that. Like other art forms, including literature, it helps us make sense of the world with its analytic and pattern-discerning process where you eventually construct your own meanings instead of consuming those of others in this age of advertising, marketing, and spin. Photography also spans a bridge across introversion and extroversion, in a uniquely effective way.