Why Photograph?

There's a discussion on photo.net which asks since we're following the masters, what can we hope to bring to photography that hasn't already been done?

This is the response I wrote back in November when I was weighing the decision of buying a new camera. I've since bought the camera.

I recently went to Yosemite for the first time, and my immediate response was "Ansel Adams didn't do it justice."

Although I actually have managed to sell a couple of pictures (digitized off a video camera for a jewelry web page, back when scanners were more expensive than they are now) I'd never consider myself a professional photographer, let alone a terribly good one, and this question haunts me as I consider how much further than my 15 year old K-1000 and a couple of cheap lenses I want to take this hobby.

I don't think the question is whether there are artists and photographers who can bring more to pictures of Yosemite. That's like asking if there are artists who can bring anything more to oil painting. The question for me is: Will my buying $2-3k (probably lots more than that by the time I get over gadget lust) worth of equipment and lugging it to the top of Half Dome enhance my experience or memory of the trip.

Furthermore, if I put the time and energy into learning how to use that equipment effectively, will I be able to bring anything more to the world than if I'd spent that time learning how to effectively apply a $35 set of oil pastels to a $10 drawing pad, or even a $5 mechanical pencil to a $.39 legal pad?

In just learning the technical aspects of the hobby I've made some beautiful pictures of sunsets at the beach. Or at least I think they're beautiful. Do they remotely capture the feeling? Maybe. Were they worth the time spent futzing with camera equipment that could have been spent being more conscious of breathing the salt air while snuggling under a blanket? I'm a little less convinced.

So I'm kind of torn. One of my favorite pictures of the trip is of two tired, haggard people, small in the center of the frame, standing in the middle of a huge expanse of granite. When I show the pictures of my Yosemite trip to my friends it's the one of the ones they flip past without interest. If I was sure that with a Canon EOS-5 and a $1500 lens I could somehow capture the feeling of having just hiked 9 miles with a 4800 foot vertical, crawled up an exposed granite face and eaten lunch on the top of the world, I'd give B&H my Visa number in a heartbeat and never once complain about carrying 15lbs of camera stuff.

My best visual memory of the trip was walking across the parking lot after coming down off of Half Dome, my legs wobbling, and seeing the face of the dome in the red light of the sunset. If I'd planned my day around that shot it would have been spectacular, but I'd never give up the hike, or the rest overlooking Nevada falls, in order to make sure I had my camera set up so that someone else could enjoy that view. I'm not sure it could ever mean as much to them.

While I really enjoyed reading and looking at Travels With Samantha , and appreciate what Philip's given the world, I wonder if his experience of the trip was improved or degraded by taking all of those pictures, if he ever missed a conversation because he was waiting for the light or worried about the focus.

I guess the question I want answered is: Does photography enhance your experience of the world? Do you see things you'd otherwise miss, meet people you otherwise wouldn't, lead to neat conversations in breathtaking places?

If so, then I'm all there, and I've got the first $2k worth of gadgets already picked out.

If not, then I think I'll trade in my K-1000 for a T4, or even a disposable, ask bystanders to use it to take pictures of a couple of haggard sweaty hikers to assist the memories which count, and buy the coffee table books at the visitor center to indulge my friends.

Thursday, March 05th, 1998 danlyke@flutterby.com