The Enjoyment of Photography

I enjoy writing this blog. I find it therapeutic, allowing me to formulate thoughts in real time about things that interest me. I’ll usually start with a broad idea which i’ll gradually refine as I write, the end result bearing little resemblance to what I had initially set out to do. Writing, for me, is a process, a means of thinking through things by forcing myself to articulate them. What I end up with often surprises me, but really, the doing of it itself is the real emotional payoff.

Photography is much the same way. I’ll start with one idea which invariably will morph into something else, or it will if I leave myself open to it, which is the key to any creative pursuit- leaving oneself open to wherever your interests take you, what the Ancients would call “following ones muse.”

Paradoxically, it’s as if the best things are drawn out of you by some force separate from your willing self, coming from somewhere deeper and richer than your conscious motivations. No wonder the ancient Greeks believed in one’s muse, a creative impulse incapable of being quantified or measured, immune to rational analysis. Your muse comes and goes on its own schedule, but you connect with it only if you acknowledge it, make the time for it, open yourself up to its possibilities.

It’s remarkable what ‘the Ancients’ can teach us, which is probably the reason great minds in every generation find themselves coming back to them and why I prattle on about them on a photography blog – they have things to say which are relevant to us as photographers, things more nebulous but no less important that the technical aspects of the craft.  Stay at the level of technical expertise and you’re a craftsman, an artisan; follow your muse and you become an artist, a creator.

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It often feels like I’m treading the same ground over and over, and maybe I am. No sooner am I done with one post than I’m starting to think of the next. Ultimately, if I look at it as a series of tasks I need to complete –  creating an ongoing stream of blog posts, no obvious end in sight – the whole process seems futile, like rolling a boulder up the hill only to start all over when it comes rolling back down (itself an Ancient Greek metaphor). it’s this sense of futility, of the never ending practical demands of our goal directed daily endeavors, that creates much of the frustration and emotional emptiness of life.

Aristotle makes a distinction that applies here: the difference between telic and atelic activities. Most of the things we do aim at a final goal: photos for an assignment; a paper for a graduate seminar;  walking the dog so he can get some exercise and stay healthy etc. These are what Artistotle calls telic activities, acts we engage in for the sake of a further goal.

Goals are obviously necessary for humans, but a life exclusively goal directed is often ultimately experienced as shallow and unfulfilling. That’s because, in pursuing goals, there are only two potential outcomes  – either I fail to complete them, in which case I’m unsuccessful and frustrated, or I do complete them, they’re finished  and I now need to create and work toward a new goal. Either way, these telic activities offer me no rest and contentment, no ability to enjoy the value of having done what I’ve done, no true fulfillment. Ironic then, that it’s the model of human activity offered us by most cultures and societies down through history, and it’s the ethic enshrined at the heart of capitalism and consumerism.

How can we disengage from this goal directed treadmill that constitutes a “successful” life? Aristotle, never a man willing to accept common opinion, believed that real “success” came via contentment, and true contentment is found not in the goal directed life but rather in Atelic activity.  Atelic activities don’t aim at a goal. You do them for the sake of doing them. The enjoyment is in the doing. I walk my dog (telic);  but I can also go for a walk with my dog (atelic), no goal in mind other than the walking. Such activities are never completed: in merely walking with my dog, our aim is not to go anywhere; our aim is to enjoy the walk wherever it takes us. Atelic activities are insulated against the cycle of completion and disappearance characteristic of the telic. They are an end in itself.

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A “Wet Plate” 5×7 of an Old Tree I Used to Play Under Back in the Day

I’ve been thinking for some time about this very issue and how it applies to my photography. Thinking back, a large part of what attracted me to photography was the process itself, the end result often secondary. It’s also why I still love to use mechanical film cameras and enjoy the ‘doing’ of film photography – bulk loading film, picking film developer combinations, the entire darkroom process from developing negatives to printing them, the whole process rich in tactile enjoyment in addition to intentionality. Digital photography has taken that enjoyment from me, the digital process being about pushing buttons where once there were processes one engaged with.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been thinking of dusting off my view camera, buying some sheet film and taking some pics. Better yet, going ‘artisanal’ and doing something unique. I’ve been doing an ongoing project, documenting a local landmark before it all gets torn down and turned into whatever it is that’ll make somebody a lot of money. The project lends itself well to a slow, steady approach. Old trees, old buildings, nostalgic decay that might work well with an alternative photographic process.

It used to be that if you wanted the look of wet plate or emulsion transfers you had to start with a wet  plate or you had to engage in the laborious process of image transfers, and when you were done you’d have a unique, one-of-a-kind image that was the product of both your aesthetic sense and your technical skills. Galleries and sophisticated collectors loved that sort of stuff. It certainly separated you from the herd, giving you an authenticity the guys shooting handheld cameras couldn’t touch, and it often made up for otherwise uninspired, pedestrian subjects. Look! Such and such really looks cool done that way, the emphasis being on the technique and not the subject.

But we also took these slow approaches because the processes themselves had value and gave an enjoyment by their doing, an enjoyment seemingly apart from the mastery of the act itself. Did we take the slow approach to experience the activity itself (atelic), or was it that the slow approach yielded results we wouldn’t have achieved another way (telic)? I suspect it might have been a bit of both, some photographers finding enjoyment in the processes themselves, others fascinated by the unique results uncommon processes produced. Today that distinction has broken down. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, with what can be done digitally, there’s no real reason to do it the slow way if the results are what matter. Applying filters in Lightroom, however, isn’t going to give you the experience of the view camera, or the darkroom, or the tactile experience of your M4 loaded with Tri-X. Is that good or bad? Depends, I suppose, on your reasons for being a photographer.

12 thoughts on “The Enjoyment of Photography

  1. Louis A. Sousa

    Interesting post. I started taking pictures in 2009 as a means to deal with paralyzing grief. Coping was the goal. The process garnered freedom from a troubled mind through immersion and translating seeing through a digital camera. From moments of evaluating my surroundings with the goal of a capture, the grief slipped away. To that primitive Nikon D40 and kit lens I am forever grateful. I disgraced the D40 it by burning a hole through the viewfinder with the tip of my cigar.. I sent it to Japan for repair, only to have the tsunami hit. The repair took over 6 months! That absence sent me down the digital rabbit hole to more powerful digital cameras and great lenses. The run to megapixels became a means to a telic end. I tired of the digital process and rebelled to film. I still shoot digital cameras, but never for me. I use them when others need quick pictures. Freedom and personal satisfaction comes to me from a manual film camera. I don’t care any more about perfection. Ironically, consider this step “backwards” an ascension to creativity. I don’t claim having unique or special artistic ability as a photographer. My end game is to capture the subject with available light employing the characteristics of the tool in my hand. Sometimes, there is nothing more There is no other goal. There is no intent other than to become one with the light and the sounds and the smells, instinctually. There is always an ultimate goal when pressing the shutter, but this is the best way I can describe its role in the process for me.

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  2. Finny

    I think it can also be a matter of age. The older I get, the less I care about the result (telic). In the meantime, I am actually essentially concerned with “doing” as such, the way is the aim (atelic).
    And so I grab my M4 and load up the TriX film and go for a walk; with Sunny, my Border Coillie

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  3. Rob Campbell

    It was nice to go again to your older pix of the South; despite having spent my career in film, loving the look of WSG double-weight prints with a perfect glaze (I see textured paper as disguise for something), I am no longer sure that I still believe myself to have become self-cheating by working digitally these days.

    Come to think of it, the thought of having to set up dishes, wash them all at the end of it after spending a lot of time getting to a point that I can get to just as well with Photoshop, seems a bit more where the self-deception might actually reside. The only thing missing with digital printing, for me, is the tonality of that WSG paper. The point is, once you know you can print well, the need to keep proving that lessens, and the process returns to being just a process.

    You are already an excellent enough photographer not to have to worry yourself about artistic justifications of any kind; taking off from that point should make the trip less of a hassle – which is possibly not at all as you see it whilst in introspective mode – but whether it’s an age thing or not, I find there is ever less pleasure to be found on the path of hard stones.

    The treatment you used, from a programme or not, must (I imagine) demand some artistic choice and control; the end result is still your baby and not the bastard child of Adobe or anybody else.

    Free yourself of self-imposed chains; it’s taken me too many decades to reach that point myself, and I look back at my own prejudices with, at best, amusement, and at worst as a huge waste of opportunity that can’t return.

    Another good thing about shooting digital is this: removed from the subconscious thought of film costs, more images get exposed, and more than a couple of times (usually during a spiritually dry spell where motivation is elsewhere and new pix not being made) I find myself looking at previously ignored material, starting to work on it, to discover that whatever had made me make the shot had not been a mistake: there actually had been a recognition that something was there, even if at a less easily visible/obvious level than is normally the case; it’s the subsequent work that brings it out.

    Rob

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  4. Mark

    Fairly soon, you will not even need to press the buttons in Lightroom/Photoshop etc. Extrapolating from current trends, the processing and even completely synthesis of images will become increasingly driven by AI algorithms. No need to even worry about what kind of result you want to achieve – the AI will generate media that are optimal to enhance your status within your social media circles.

    None of this matters at all if you value the craftsmanship and work in producing images, and draw satisfaction from it regardless of what others do or how they consider the result.

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  5. StephenJ

    I dunno about having goals, but I walk on average around eight miles a day, just through my local woodland on the south side of London. Then around twice a week, I wander into town, where I seem to keep attracting Leica cameras, they sort of stick to me.

    Yesterday, I noticed that one of the London dealers was offering a 40mm Leitz Summicron. I had owned the Minolta version of this some time back and knew it to be a goodun, the deal was done along with an old scuffed Leica CL that fell off the shelf as I walked past.

    Having bought my first enlarger around a week ago, I am now about to set up my first home dark room, I have been using a public darkroom on and off, for a while, and I have a plethora of old Leica’s for the many occasions when my digital CL camera annoys me, which is nearly all the time. Mind you, the 40mm does look good and is really nice to use on both of the CL’s!

    I also have eight miles of negatives a day to work on, most of them entirely crap…

    Is this an example of something that will never be finished?

    I am reminded of Aristotle… Aristotle….

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-Y7xumRJN4&frags=pl%2Cwn

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  6. Thomas Rink

    I believe that having a goal can be worthwhile, for example pursueing a project which should become a body of work. The thing is to take the goal seriously, but without attaching one’s self-esteem to it; to exert just the amount of control which is required to keep it on track, but let it go such that it can take shape. Probably like a Zen ink drawing, where the picture is not considered to be of any value, but every brush stroke is a matter of life and death. So I don’t see telic and atelic as opposites, but as complementary: they have to be balanced with each other.

    Best, Thomas

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  7. Rolf Johansen

    I really enjoy reading your blog. I always wonder where your waundering thoughts will take me. Often both enlightening, intriguing and thought provoking. Makes me smile.

    When it comes to photography I find that I enjoy the process of looking for, and finding the stuff that I like making pictures of, is more enjoyable than the process of selecting, processing and printing. I invariably almost never print my pictures. It is as if I don´t need to. I have undeveloped rolls of Tri-X on the shelf, and lots of pictures in Lightroom that need further work.

    And what will I do tomorrow? Most likely take my camera along and go out and find more beauty and intriguing patterns to make pictures off…..

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  8. Wayne

    Lately it has started to seep into my grizzled old head, while I do enjoy reading what others think and say about photography, I do not give a tinker’s damn about what others think of my photography. I find myself sometimes wondering what it would be like to be responsible for that record of a “decisive moment,” but that is about as far as it goes. It may be related to a personality disorder, but I strongly suspect it is, rather, one of the few rewards of the ageing process.

    Break out that view camera; buy some Arista Ortho-Litho 3 film; open your favorite bourbon. Chasing the mysteries of ISO and processing for that film is sort of like chasing a ghost. I do not drink bourbon, but imagine such can only make the experience more enjoyable.

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  9. Lee Rust

    For a truly atelic experience, you might consider hand coating your own emulsions onto glass plates to shoot in your view camera, then coat your own AZO-style paper to make contact prints. I’ve tried it and the processes and procedures are straightforward, with only a modest requirement in lab equipment. Wooden plate holders can be found online, or an able craftsperson could fabricate some.

    Photography of the Ancients! No Adobe subscription required.

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  10. Rob Campbell

    Wayne, that’s the great problem with amateur photography: once you begin to question it, the reason for taking/making a picture becomes difficult to understand. It brings with it the problem of recognition of that effort once you make it, and one way or the other, we do get part of our jollies from recognition of achievement. I totally agree that we should make our snaps to please an audience of one, but can that really guarantee freedom from the desire for an appreciation beyond our own? On the other hand, the professional has an easier time of it because he has goals: the need to eat and keep a roof over his head via those pictures. His audience can be a tiny one too, consisting of client and nobody else. If both client and photographer are happy with the results of the work, that’s an added bonus: external as well as internal appreciation.

    Rob

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