why make pictures?

Top: Tricycle, Memphis, 1969-71
William Eggleston, Dye transfer print

Over the last twenty-five years, I went to school to be an artist, abandoned that, became a designer, married, and had a daughter. After many life changes, I think about almost everything differently. But I still have this incoherent desire to make pictures, not much different (and not much more understood by me) than when I was much younger. Then, I thought that people make things for their own sake, because they are beautiful or some part of the truth. I am not sure about that anymore. There are many much more important things to me now, but nothing more mysterious than that (despite only extremely sporadic and privately satisfying pictures) I keep wanting to do it. It could be just my own personal hang-up. At this point, I want more to understand this drive than do anything meaningful with it!

I’m interested in photography, since it has some of this same mystery. In contrast to painting, sculpture, or even film, millions of people take photos meaningfully. Photographs can be completely mundane for even close family, or epic and affecting to anyone, and the difference is usually pretty ellusive. After I took a picture of a tricycle I saw a similar picture of a tricycle by William Eggleston, but there’s no meaningful relationship between the images (other than to point out just how great he is). There are plenty of good images in the world, more are not needed. What is meaningful, then? Why do it?

So, I read Photography After Frank, by Philip Gefter, and Why People Photograph, by Robert Adams, to see if there was some vocabulary people use to write about this and how to make sense of it. They are both good books with strong ideas and clear thinking.

Gefter was the front-page picture editor for The New York Times and a critic for that newspaper. He surveys a lot of recent good photos and motives behind them. Usefully, he offers themes like “the document,” “staged documentation,” “photojournalism,” “portraits”, “collections,” and “the marketplace.” He offers a way to anchor and understand the work of good artists. For example, he writes that in

…the 1980s the photograph underwent a rigorous, necessary, and unforgiving examination by postmodern artists and critics. They challenged its fidelity to fact, its role in constructing social realities, its validity as a form of art, — to the point where straight documentary photography seemed conventional, even retrograde.

I can see that in the edgy Cindy Sherman, subversive Sherrie Levine, and the raw Nan Goldin, all of whom were newly-made art-world stars when I was in school. But this way of thinking seems to say that these artists made images because they were engaged in some kind of cognitive research project (collaborating in teams!), however. Having (very briefly) met two of these people and seen all three speak a number of times, I don’t believe anything like that motivated them. They all seemed very self-absorbed and chaotic (but appeallingly vulnerable and human). In one case their best description of their method was to “struggle out from under my fear of being disgusting” (I believe this was Nan Goldin at the New School, but I can’t find a reference for it). Even though the cultural effect of their work might be formal, their work was not pursued logically or methodically. The critical/art history approach doesn’t help me.

Adams’ book is much more personal about the ‘why’ in photography, divided into sections on “what can help” (“…humor, teaching, money, dogs”), “examples of success,” and “working conditions.” He speaks as someone who has spent many hours with the desire to make images and struggling with the results. Speaking of “living in several landscapes,” he mentions living “in hope” but mostly of “a simple, generic” place, a

country crossroad on the high plains. There are thousands to choose from. Often there doesn’t seem to be anything there at all–just two roads, four fields, and sky. I feel foolish to have stoopped, but small things can become important– a lark or a mailbox or sunflowers. And if I wait I may see the architecture– the roads, the fields, the sky. […] We might find there a balance of form and openness… It would be the world as we had hoped, and we would recognize it together.

This is an appealling way of seeing, tying together the act of taking pictures with two people (him and you, to whom he’s giving a direct invitation) experiencing familiar things with new appreciation. This feels to me like the Buddhist direction, where the practice and living with humility is more important than the results of the activity. This may in fact be a good way to live, but it doesn’t answer the question of ‘why’ (even if it is a good side-step of that) for me.

There is something visceral and silent about taking pictures. Analysis is useful for understanding ‘why not,’ but not why. After abandoning the wish for importance, insight, understanding, beauty, or connection, why does the drive stick around? It seems too easy to just say that the meaning of making pictures is the work itself.

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