Both Google Translate and I got involved in this thoughtful post; I hope that I have come out on top in helping to get José Carlos’s ideas across.
WHY DO I TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS?
para J C Robles
About a year ago, the Spanish nature photographer José Benito Ruiz asked me, “Why do you take photographs.” I think his question wasn’t a comment on my photography but it got me thinking all the same. I just didn’t know: I was floored. I think, however, I may be getting closer to some answers now.
I have read many times that photography rests on three pillars: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. That composition could be codified into the rule of thirds. But this reductionist formula left many unanswered questions. And so began my exploration. Along the way I have met with Niepce and W. H. Fox Talbot, Peter Emerson and Stiegliz (with his equivalence theory), not to mention Ansel Adams and visualization, and more recently Minor White. Later, my focus turned to Degas, Sorolla, the French Impressionists, Mondrian, Bierstadt, Whistler, Velázquez and Vermeer, and others. Add Dondis’s syntax visual theory and some writings of Walter Benjamin and my mind was at bursting point!
Meanwhile, I was still taking pictures. One dawn on the Reef of the Sirens I framed up the stone monoliths emerging from the sea and stood back to enjoy the scene as I waited for the light. Then a strange sensation swept over me, almost like becoming part of the scene itself, utterly absorbed. Just then the stones were struck by the sun and the picture was completed. The moment was past. Months later I experienced the same sensation at El Campello (Alicante). And with that I made a splendid discovery: the enjoyment of beauty is a stimulus to the heart and mind.
The power of the triangle
In a chat with Niall Benvie I told him about my thoughts on it. He used the word “Trinity” in response to an email in which I talked about my ideas. The triangle – the first shape that can be formed from the union of straight lines- embodies what I now think of as the essential elements of photography. In this case, we’re not talking about ISO, shutter speed and aperture but instead about mind (intellect), heart (emotion) and sharing (humanism).
Peter H. Emerson claimed that we are all born mentally blind. Image formation in the brain is little more than a chemical process mediated by intellect. That’s a bit depressing! Minor White said: “When searching for images, the photographer’s mind is blank. But that’s not the same as an empty void. Rather, it’s actually a very active, receptive state of mind, ready to latch onto an image pre-formed in the mind.” His words were a revelation to me. I was not alone and the sensation of connection with place and subject I had experienced at the Reef of the Sirens began to make sense.
We need, on an evolutionary level, to observe and to learn through those observations. Photography gives me a mechanism for processing these observations and a medium for interpreting them. Through it I can direct my curiosity about the world and my engagement with it.
But these observations are not, cannot be objective – the images reflect as much about my view of the world as the world itself. They are emotions in two dimensions.
“Art is the affirmation of life”, Stieglitz said. Life is emotion. Tears, laughter, anger, calmness, joy, sadness, despair, hope, nostalgia, joy, disappointment, love, lust, hate, joy, sadness, passion, indolence, folly, serenity – intense words which find their way into the description of powerful photographs. When the photographer tries to remain hidden behind a coldly objective representation of the world, we sense the photograph lacks heart.
Of all the emotions felt by humans, laughter and joy, the positive energies, are the ones I want to provoke through my photography. Scientific studies even suggest that the optimistic live longer. Laughter is a uniquely human trait and is all the more intense in company. And that leads me to the final part of the trinity: Humanism.
“Friendship” was the first word I chose for this last point of the trilogy. The hero of the film “Into the Wild” when dying at the end of his journey wrote in his notebook: “Happiness does not exist unless it is shared.” Hallelujah! As social animals we need each other. And we given expression to those feelings of attachment through photos. Indeed, photographs of our family are one of our most precious possessions and the ones most sorely missed after a house fire. But to photographers, the expressions of our lives and loves, of our connection with and view of the world – our photographs – are almost as precious. They are evidence that we have led interesting lives, that we were are individuals. And just as powerful as the need to create these emotional records is the urge to share them.
There care many reasons why we want to share our photos. The most disappointing is merely for congratulation or judgement. Who puts a price on Art? Who asks what was in my mind when I shot a picture? Human have evolved and progressed through cooperation and this sensibility probably extends today into a wish to share our view of the world too. Humanism is all about belonging and recognising the benefits of being part of something bigger. It is about a set of values that transcends love or friendship – values embodied in the notion of society. The Royal Spanish Language Academy defines humanism as a critical attitude based on an integrated human values. Honesty, tolerance, respect, sincerity, friendship, altruism, solidarity, simplicity, loyalty, optimism, confidence, values that should inform our photography.
The end of the journey
My photographic journey is one towards the convergence of these three strands. And it is not a solitary one. The company of friends, photographers and enthusiasts that I meet along the way, take me close to my goal, make it possible. Photography, then, for me is: INTELLECT, EMOTION AND HUMANISM. The process of seeing and making the picture becomes a collaborative process when it is shared: it no longer is just about “self”. Creative energy is generated in this sort of environment, energy that itself feeds into our relationships and sense of well being.
I’ve tried – and I admit, struggled, to answer José Benito’s question properly. But I am not alone in struggling with that age-old question – what is art? But I want readers – especially non-photographers – to reflect on the fact that photography is as challenging and creative an activity as any other artistic pursuit. When practised with passion, it is not a mechanistic process. I like to believe that photography makes me a better person, more aware of my world and my relationships with others.
So, now I ask you: why do you take photographs?