Why I take pictures

Some artists are able to focus in a single area and spend their lives trying to master a discipline. I’ve never been one of those. I write; I design; I paint; I draw; I take pictures. Each stem from the same desire — I want to make art that makes the viewer feel; art that hits with the force of a blow. 

Being able to communicate my message regardless of its medium is important to me. As a kid, I was an artist; in college and grad school, a writer; then a designer; then an art director; then I closed the circle and studied figurative art at an atelier. I’ve spent my life trying to evoke emotions in others by showing them not just what I see, but how and why. 

To do that, you cannot simply see — you must observe. You must be in the moment and bring all your consciousness to bear on what’s in front of you. There’s no room for remembering the past, or for thinking about the future. You have only now; and now is fluid and fleeting. Dive down beneath the cold waves’ surface, find what lies beneath, in that shared ocean where all true art comes from, and bring it back to show others. 

When I see or read good art, I want to feel it in my body; feel the physical shock that comes from knowing the person who made this waded into the same sea. I want to engage with the work, and be provoked by it. The things I love the most are ones that make me have to look away to fully absorb them, then come back to them again and again. I fell in love with the way a painted portrait omits the superfluous in order to reveal the subject’s essential character. I fell in love with the explosive force found in the last lines of a poem — unexpected punches to the solar plexus of the heart. I’d rather distill than describe.

But that is why I make art in general; why do I take pictures with a camera?

It’s a hard thing to admit in a photography class, but before last year, photography was something I considered a tool, not an art.  I’d seen too many self-styled digital illustrators use photos filtered beyond recognition, as poor substitutes for the skills they lacked. Photography was for people who couldn’t create; who couldn’t imagine, but only capture. Photographers were people I hired to document grip-and-grin events, to shoot product photos or buildings. A camera was a tool useful only for recording a model’s stance, to use as reference in getting them back into the same pose next week. Photographers might as well have been mechanics, for all I knew or cared. 

Then my department’s budget got decimated, and I suddenly had to do all the shooting myself. When I took Photo 101 a year ago, I thought at most, I’d learn what all the buttons and dials did. I expected the class would have all the emotional impact of learning to drive stick. I could not have been more wrong. 

That first night of class, we watched a video about Henri Cartier-Bresson and his work. He spoke about his photography as if he were describing a painting, and yet stressed that the photographer has to go find what the painter creates. The idea of photography as a sort of instant drawing was intriguing, but it wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I saw Irving Penn’s Earthly Bodies, that I saw that photographs could be art in the way I thought of art. Penn’s photos showed what the women felt like and the effect they had on the artist, in a way that transcended their bodies. They struck me the same way that Caravaggio and Rembrandt’s paintings had when I first saw them in person — I was confronted with these images, not just shown. I felt the cold shiver that tells me I’m in the presence of something visceral and true. I realized that my dismissal of photography was the result of looking at  certain kinds of photo, just as someone who had only read pulp fiction and billboards might dismiss literature. 

That was it; photography was a new language I had to learn to speak. 

Becoming fluent has not been easy. All the arts have their own language, a grammar, and a vocabulary. Sentence diagramming is to novels as fingerpainting is to oils. There is always an apprenticeship where you endure the drudgery of learning the art’s grammar. You imitate the great masters’ styles in order to learn how best to apply paint to a canvas, to force meter to flow, to arrange a page simply and well. All this, to hone your own discernment about what’s most effective, and to make your own choices, so you can speak the language well enough to communicate. It is frustrating to still have the vocabulary of a nine-year-old; of technical issues getting in the way of what I want to say. And yet, just as many languages share common roots, photography isn’t wholly separate from design, painting, and poetry. 

I take pictures, because I am a polyglot.