Answer quick, now: where, at this very moment, are the photographs that you value the most?
I can tell you where mine are. They are printed, in three 8×8 books (number four is on the way after a brief delay) on a shelf in our bedroom. Every Mother’s Day, I give my wife a book of photos of our kids from the previous year. There they are, within arm’s reach, and I periodically take those books down and flip through them with the kids, or with our parents. There are some real gems in there. The four best years of my life in a tidy stack.
To you, what were the most important words in that last paragraph? To me, the most important words are “within arm’s reach.” Our family pictures are right there, in a commonly used room, in plain sight, easily accessible. It is easy for us to look at our pictures, and it should be easy for you to look at your pictures, as well.
Last week, I gave you the homework of going out and finding great photography, and looking at it closely. Your task for this week is hopefully simpler: look at your own photography, and study it. Now, if you did last week’s homework, then it is possible that you will go to your own pictures, look at them, and say, “Oh. Jeez.”
Looking at your pictures next to, say, Steve McCurry’s, is an education on many fronts. Yes, there’s going to be a quality gap for certain. That might make you feel a little bit bad about yourself, but it shouldn’t. What are the differences? I guarantee you the most important differences are not in equipment or exposure settings. His pictures aren’t better because he shoots manually or shot most of his career on film. What McCurry does do differently, for example, is that he very often shoots for what he calls “The Unguarded Moment”—that split second where the subjects forget there is a camera there and are purely themselves. They exude soul and identity and importance. They are most definitely not just photographs of people. You want to take pictures that exude soul like that. Or at least you want to aspire to.
But there is something else that you should notice. Even though your pictures might not make you famous, it is very likely that you still love your pictures, even the slightly out-of-focus ones and the orange ones and the ones that are fading and aren’t all that good to begin with. The reason is that you are emotionally attached to the people and places in those photos. The images are not memories; they are memory cues, and looking at them fills you with good feelings. This is the hypnotic power of still photography.
If you have photos close at hand, go through them bit by bit over the next week. Sit down with your family and look at them and tell their stories and pass them around. Even if your photographs are just on your phone (print them! Please! In the name of all that is good, print them!), look through them and remember everything about who and what is in them. When you do this, you are making photography important.
If you do not have photos close at hand, get them there.
And then, go get your camera. Remember how you laughed and cried and told jokes and bonded looking at your (and your family’s) past photographs? Every time you take a picture, you are potentially creating that future moment with an image that is both emotionally important and artistically beautiful. Like the great photographers who are worth knowing and admiring, you have the ability every time you click the shutter to make an image that will have an immediate emotional impact on future generations…on descendants you will never meet. You have a responsibility to do that with thought and care, creating images that show personality and gesture.
That’s worth something. THAT is the hypnotic power of still photography. Make images that capture the now for the long term, and look at them regularly. Keep them within arm’s reach.