Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why do we take photographs?

click photo to enlarge
I'm currently reading Photography: A Middle-brow Art, by Pierre Bordieu and others, a book first published in 1965, that was reprinted in the 1990s. Despite its age, and the changes and growth in photography since the genesis of the study, it remains a thought-provoking work that encourages us to look at photography from a different perspective.

The book is quite densely written, in the way that is typical of French sociologists. During my reading of it I've frequently stopped, re-read a section and then pondered what was said: always, I think, a sign that a book challenges one's thinking. On the question of why amateurs take photographs Bordieu identifies "motivations" and "restraints", and has this to say:

"...the fact of taking photographs, keeping them or looking at them, may bring satisfactions in any of five areas, 'protection against time, communication with others and the expression of feelings, self-realization, social prestige, distraction or escape'. More precisely it could be argued that photography has the function of helping one to overcome the sorrow of the passing of time, either by providing a magical substitute for what time has destroyed, or by making up for the failures of memory, acting as a mooring for the evocation of associated memories, in short, by providing a sense of the conquest of time as a destructive power; secondly, it encourages communication with others by enabling people to relive past moments together, or to show others the interest or affection that one has for them; thirdly, it gives photographers the means of 'realizing themselves', either by making them feel their own 'power' by magical appropriation or by the recreation, either glorified or caricatured, of the object represented, giving them the opportunity to 'feel their emotions more intensely' or allowing them to express an artistic intention or demonstrate their technical mastery; fourthly, it provides the satisfaction of prestige, in the form of technical prowess or evidence of personal achievement (a journey, an event) or of ostentatious expenditure; finally, it provides a means of escape or a simple distraction, like a game. On the other hand, 'financial restrictions, the fear of failure or ridicule and the desire to avoid complications' constitute the main obstacles to the practice."

Once you've cut through the academic language what we have here is pretty much every conceivable reason for engaging in the hobby. I think most people would recognise in their own pursuit of photography, some, if not all, of the motivations that Bourdieu lists.

Photography: A Middle-brow Art has probably received less attention than it deserves, partly I suspect, because of its title. The potential audience for this book among photographers probably take exception to the phrase "middle-brow", seeing their activity as one that is capable of high art. Back in the early 1970s, during part of my higher education, I was sitting in the countryside learning to paint. The lecturer looked over my shoulder at the landscape I was working on and said, "Mmm, a photographer's composition." There was no audible sneer or condescension in his voice, and he didn't speak of his view about the place of photography relative to fine art painting, but I heard it nonetheless. And in fact, he was right about my composition. It was one that had been popularised by photographers, though they had taken it from painters in the first instance! So, is photography low-brow, middle-brow, high-brow, or an endearing mixture of some or all of these things? Is it capable of of high art or not? I have a view on this, but for once, you may be pleased to hear, I'm keeping it to myself!

Today's photograph uses a composition, popular amongst photographers, of a tree acting as a frame for a view. This device is also one that is found in paintings that pre-date the arrival of the upstart medium. It shows my wife sitting on a bench at Easton Walled Gardens, Lincolnshire. The country house of which the gardens were part was demolished in 1951, and the remaining buildings are the very grand Victorian stable block that have been converted into living accommodation. As the umbrella held by my wife suggests, the shot was taken on an overcast morning when rain seemed likely.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 18mm (36mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/100 seconds
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On