An Essay: In Defense Of Creative Photography

An essay I wrote for my 11th grade AP Language class, partly in response to an essay by Susan Sontag, “On Photography”…

          In one single moment, there is so much to remember. Photography is a unique way to capture it—but not all of it. Some of it, what we see, is what is recorded. Yes, pictures do lie sometimes. At the least, they simply aren’t showing us the whole story. We can’t truly experience the environment they were taken in, or the events that were happening. We can’t see the environment in motion or hear, feel, and smell what was going on around the photographer. As Susan Sontag would assert, one also cannot fully understand the inner workings of a snail just by viewing its picture, or what the purpose and procedure of a party was just by viewing an image on Facebook. However, it would not be fully valid to say that photography limits our understanding. Sontag makes some brilliant points, but one problem is that she is only looking at one aspect of photography, the aspect of photography used for documentation and journalism. She is not addressing photography directly as an art form and a personal experience. 

          When one is using photography for art, it’s different from the way it would be used in documentation and journalism. Using photography for art is not necessarily a mother taking a picture of her child blowing out their birthday candle to preserve the memory or a tourist getting a snapshot of a famous landmark, nor is it necessarily even a professional photographer taking a couple’s wedding pictures. When one is trying to do art, one’s approach is that of an entirely different kind. You are not simply recording for memory or for publicity and journalism; you’re trying to show people something creative. A conventional photographer taking pictures of the Queen’s birthday celebration for a magazine will be using the same kind of lighting, the same conventional composition, the same typical subjects. An artistic photographer could and will go far beyond that. If I were hired to photograph the Queen’s birthday party, they’d be kind of perplexed. I would be focusing on the flickering candles, the little roach shuffling behind the presents, the puddles of glimmering water on the table from where the ice cold drinks’ condensation dripped down, a bird fluttering around outside the window, or the fluorescent light bulb hanging from the ceiling in its exquisite blown-glass lamp. Maybe they’d get lucky and find a picture of the Queen’s face in profile against a blurry fireplace. Creative photography is hardly what Sontag describes as “mental pollution.”

Here we have a concoction-in-progress (above) and a fly sitting on the arm of an outdoor chair (right).

                A good artistic photographer can present ordinary objects that we see every day in ways that are so different that it seems like those objects are completely unfamiliar to us. This photography is the primal capture of how someone who thinks a bit differently sees the world. Sure, the internet may be saturated with a bunch of plain photos of silly cats and sweaty (but nonetheless talented) athletes, but the creative urges photography can release in an individual are apparent. With many people, photography is not about documenting or recording, it’s about creating, despite how it may be limited to only one moment and angle in our universe of unfathomable amounts of moments and angles. The Queen or that famous athlete, or even the beautiful landscape of the African savanna may be omnipresent in magazines, newspapers, and web articles, but an artist’s soul is not.

                Sontag’s argument, however accurate it may be for most photography, is also only looking at photography from the perspective of a person looking at a photo and analyzing it. The experience of actually taking a picture is not commented on at all. When a photographer’s finger is on the shutter release and their lens, focus and position are perfect as they’re staring through the viewfinder, they and that object or person they are photographing are locked in a tight, intimate embrace. In the shoes of a photographer, trudging through briars and mosquitoes or bending down and squatting awkwardly with their back curving off to the side to try and get that one subject in view and framed perfectly by its environment, spinning around crazily trying to capture the insanity inducing rush of people in New York, or waddling around in the snow next to a stream waiting for just the right moment, imminently arriving, to capture that odd looking rubber ducky bobbing down on the water, or twisting on a long range lens frantically to get a close up of that little cardinal that just perched on a branch near the window, it is as much a journey of the spirit as it is a journey of the body.

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                The person reading the magazine and observing the cover may only get a picture, but some photographer got paid and went and experienced that scene with their own existence, understood the presence and the movement of that magnificent scene. It was a fully fleshed out world. The photographer was in it. Their face was squished up against the back of the camera. Their eye was peering through the camera’s viewfinder. They stroked the surfaces of the subject and the scene with their spirit. Their soul expanded out to meet that foreign scene or object, that person or creature, for just that handful of moments. If that isn’t something akin to understanding, then someone has to be kidding me.

                When compared to any other medium, is photography really especially limited? Sontag criticizes it for only focusing on what something looks like. However, it’s easy to do the same with writing—just by writing about only the visual qualities of the subject. Photography can only ever express what can be told with just a picture, yet you can never fully, immediately express what something looks like with just writing. To write about everything that can be visually expressed by a picture in one glance would take pages and pages of detailed sentences, or one heck of a writer, which is a relatively rare occurrence—and even then, it would only result in one or two pages less of writing. Just as you can only focus on a specific angle of something in photography, you can choose to only focus on a specific angle in writing; editorials, persuasive essays, in fact, almost every kind of writing can be skewed by a decision on the writer’s part to focus on one thing rather than another. Video, which is basically just millions of individual pictures in a timed sequence, can explain a lot, yet it is limited as well. Angles, editing, engineered lighting. The celebrity you see on TV every day is not always this pretty preppy person that makes these almost oddly cathartic shifts from cuteness and kindness to deranged melodrama—it’s all about what the executives want to include to keep people’s interest. The truth is, everything imaginable for human creation, everything touched by human hands is limited. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. But knowledge can be gained, bite by bite. If one person ate all the food in the world at once, they unfortunately would probably explode, and they wouldn’t have time to savor the qualities that are innate to one little bite. All these different foods, of all types, textures, colors, cultures, and flavors, would just be inhaled without any attention to their individual essences.

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          Our senses are limited. When we see something, we’re not SEEING something; we’re just receiving information about the light bouncing off of it. We can only see, taste, hear, or feel what comes to us within a given range of vibration, magnitude, intensity, or quality. Our intellect is limited. While we may experience one room or street corner or grove of trees with our presence, we are stuck in the position of our body and the limits of our senses. We cannot comprehend what it must feel like for the eagle, whose vision can detect the miniscule twitch of a running rabbit on the ground from hundreds of feet in the sky. We are stuck in the angled cages of our own opinions and experiences, dividing us from each other and skewing our perception of our already limited reality. Our life is a blip in the cavernous sequences of the universe. Our life is the click of a shutter—stroking one detail of the universe.    

Thank you, friends...  You can look at my photography HERE.