What, Exactly, is the Point?

1978: Me the Brooding Art Photographer. What Did I think I was Doing?

Why do we take photographs? Why, for many of us, is the act of photographing so central to our lives and who we are? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’m not sure I have the answer, but I suspect it has something to do with the fleeting nature of time and a desire to arrest its flow.

I’ve been photographing ‘seriously’ since I was 12. By ‘serious’ I mean intentionally engaged in the practice of photography as something more than merely reflexively recording meaningful moments in time. Granted, much of the pleasure I’ve derived from my interest has been centered around my fascination with cameras. What started the whole thing was a 7th-grade teacher, Mr. Smith, showing me his plain prism Nikon F. I was hooked. From there I was lucky enough to purchase a succession of increasingly impressive cameras, culminating in a Leica in 1977 (for those of you not around then, a Leica was a quasi-mystical thing that cost 5x a normal camera if you could find one; it didn’t really do anything more than a Nikon F did, rather it marked you out as photographic cognoscenti. It appealed to snobs even then.)

I’ve always understood my interest in photography to serve a larger purpose, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to articulate what that purpose is/was. Maybe that’s the point of what great thinkers have noted about language and reality; the net of language misses much of what we experience. Maybe photography is a way of articulating things language can’t. Maybe it’s an inarticulate attempt to establish a sense of permanence amidst the relentless passage of time, a way of memorializing the fact that ‘this happened.’

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Me 42 Years Later

A week or so ago I was told I had 6 months to live. Aside from the more existential questions that raises (e.g. “Are you fucking kidding me?”), it brought home to me the question of what I’d been doing photographically for the past 50 years. Maybe there was a purpose in it all. Interestingly enough, one of the first things my wife told me I needed to do in the next months was to put my entire photographic library in order so she would have access to it and some sense of what she was looking at. What she said made sense to me. It seems important I do that.

But Why? When I have such limited time, what purpose could devoting much of it to cataloging a photo collection as opposed to ‘living’ whatever remaining time I have? Wouldn’t my time be better served with a trip to Europe to say goodbye to dear friends, or traveling someplace I’d always wanted to see, or simply indulging whatever particular desires I might want to indulge…smoking, drinking, recreational heroin use (I must admit, I am seriously considering buying a Ducati Panagale V4 so as to enjoy outrunning hapless North Carolina Sheriff’s Deputies throughout the backroads of the state).

I’m of the belief that people only really ‘die’ when the last person who remembers them dies. You live on in the people who love you and carry your memory. My father, who died ten years ago, seems as alive to me now as he ever has, a large reason being the photographs I have of him. It’s something more than the mere photograph itself. It’s remembering the entire experience the photo conjures as me the photographer and my father as my subject. Photos support and enlarge his memory, helping keep him alive. It’s an invaluable gift photography gives us.

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Back When I Thought I’d Live Forever

So, I’ve since been told that there’s a ‘chance’ I might be cured, or at least my life prolonged past the proverbial ‘six months.’ Hope springs eternal, as they say. A few rounds of chemo, a few surgeries and I’m as good as new. I’m now considering all the things I’ve yet to do after I get through with the medical issues. I’m still going to be putting my photography in order though, just in case.

12 thoughts on “What, Exactly, is the Point?

  1. Rob Campbell

    Tim, forget the Ducati: it could easily cut your alloted time right down, and you’d end up just a statistic on the county files; far better you take the advice of your wife: clearly, she feels this very strongly, so why deny her her wish? It is important, even if just for that single reason. But in reality, and personally, it is not just that single reason: it is also about being tidy and not leaving behind any mess.

    I am a helluva lot older than you, in human terms, and my greatest desire is not to leave my two kids with the problems associated with selling property, finances and various banks here and there. If I have a big fear, it’s losing it some day when I’m alone at home, and not being discovered until I have ruined carpets or beds with my juices etc. Have you seen Sally Mann’s snaps of the death fields? Exactly; I want no messes! I say fear, but by that I mean not fear for self, having lost all that years ago with my first heart attack, but the fear of landing people with horrific confrontations they can well do without. To that end, we exchange e-mails at least once a week, and so if I run silent, there is ever someone local here in Spain who can be called to check me out.

    But motivation for the making of snaps is difficult to decide: for me, it started with the fascination of Leica ads in US magazines that I saw when I lived as a kid in India, and as I got older and into my teens, there is no doubt that access to amazing women (amazing if only in their looks) became paramount: hence, my ultimate leap into fashion and, when that dried up locally, into calendars. Losing those outlets for one reason or another was traumatic, and very painful over many years. Only recently have I been able to push it aside, largely aided by the fact that I realised that I was far from being the only cat fucked by digital and the advent of penny stock that killed off my pension plans. Consequently, I now think very differently, grateful for being the age that I am, and for living during an epoch where dreams really could come true for photographers if you tried hard enough. Seems today it’s more a matter of gathering friggin’ likes on social media. Sheesh. Consequently, I’ve lost interest in long lenses and staying up (obviously pointlessly) to date with equipment to cover all possible girl snaps; I would happily settle for a single Leica Q2 Mono and carry it with me everywhere, every day. Self-sought simplification of one’s life, possibly the key to happiness.

    Hang on in there, my friend. We need you.

    Rob

    Reply
  2. Leicaphila Post author

    Hi Rob:

    Thanks for the best wishes. I think you’re right about the Ducati thing. Were it not for the wife, however, I think I’d be spending whatever time I have riding the backroads, or better, yet, track days at Carolina Motorsports Park (CMP) in South Carolina. If you’ve never hustled a 150 hp 400 lb cycle around a track at 180 mph, you have no idea what you’re missing. Most track guys would say it’s better than sex. It’s certainly better than bad sex no doubt.

    I like the idea of the Q2 Mono. I too feel a compulsion to get a Leica Mono before my time ends. Why? Not quite sure what the allure is. I look at the files people post online and see nothing special that can’t be duplicated pretty easy with my M 240 and Silver Efex. Just vanity I guess, but real none the less.

    Somehow, in spite of periodically selling off equipment, I’ve got a shelf full of it again. I’ve promised my wife I’d do two things: 1) sell the camera equipment so she doesn’t have to figure out what it is and what it’s worth, and 2) get 50 years of photographs in order.

    So, I’ll probably sell everything….and buy an MM just because I can.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      The point is that perhaps there really isn’t one.

      As Keith indicates, it might well be something out of our control, something that just is, a part of our makeup. Considering all the difficulties that getting into it as a life’s commitment entails, one of the most opaque professions I can imagine trying to crack, it just has to be something totally removed from anything as simple as thinking about careers and which one might perhaps make one slightly rich and provide a pleasantly comfortable life. I never knew anybody who had the foggiest idea of how to become a professional photographer. I got there by starting as an apprentice engineer and then finally getting my ass transferred into the company’s mobile photo unit. Didn’t do any photography that I liked, but between ’60 and ’66 when I finally grew wings, I sure learned how to print! (No harm to them, but the High Street guys with the weddings and the portraits never figured in that concept, were never models of where to aim. I’d really have preferred to remain in engineering than do that.)

      I do have a motorbike driving licence, but the biggest thing I rode was about 125cc; the fastest I ever drove was exactly an “indicated” 100 mph on a UK motorway one mad day when my wife and I were going down from Scotland to England to see a printer who was doing a calendar for us. That was in a little Fiat X1/9 that sat as steady as a rock, but took forever to hit the ton. I remember thinking it was a choice between reaching that speed or running into radar before the thing could get there. I wasn’t even sure it could reach those rpms. Perhaps Fiat sell enthusiastic speedos! 180mph is the stuff of nightmares.

      Whenever I find myself creeping into high speeds I become terribly aware of things such as tyres and metal fatigue. It really takes away any incentive. But prolonged motorway driving can make you very vulnerable to that condition where you lose the sense of speed. I try hard to keep a good distance away from cars in front of me, but even so, I’ve had the unnerving experience of thinking my brakes weren’t going to do their job in time, an idea always coupled with doubts about the guy behind me. I lack the right kind of motivation or mindset for that stuff…

      To each his own.

      Rob

      Reply
  3. Keith Laban

    What is the point?

    I find it nigh on impossible to articulate why I’ve spent a lifetime making images other than to say it is beyond my control: a compulsion. My wife – a therapist – suspects an obsessive compulsive disorder together with autistic tendencies, but sees some positives here rather than says it as a pejorative retort.

    I’ve had a series of potentially life threatening experiences and illnesses starting at 16 years of age with a knife attack that left me physically and mentally scarred, but thankfully I’ve never been given a time limit. I can only imagine what my reaction would be, but I suspect it could be a time when image making takes a back seat, at long last. I imagine spending time with my soul mate and dear friends on our favourite Greek island, but time, or rather lack of it will tell.

    When I do go – please let that be before my wife – I’ve asked her to keep my website up and running while she can, but that indulgence is the extent of my need to have any sort of creative legacy.

    Keep on truckin.

    Reply
  4. Hank Beckmeyer

    I am tempted to quote John Cage (“The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation.”), but instead I’ll just quote John Cage – “No why. Just here.”

    Reply
  5. Zach Hodges

    Thank you for writing about this even as you’re contemplating your own mortality in the face of tragedy. I’ve often wondered why I take pictures as well, and while there’s definitely visions of my legacy after death in there, I’ve resigned to the fact that I mostly photograph because I like living my life that way. Like you said, it makes me see, makes me live more fully. I also have a horrible memory haha, so it helps this goldfish remember what happened last month. But your words here were encouraging and inspiring to me, thank you.

    Reply
  6. Bob Palmieri

    Today’s thoughts on Why the Heck Do I Shoot:

    To first predict, and later see what the snap looks like with that lens/film combo

    To stop time, in a small way

    Perhaps to be able to spend time pondering that visual to see why it provoked snapping

    To be able to look back on the subject later to see changes, and remember how it was

    To show others who weren’t there what I thought was reason enough to snap it

    Reply
  7. Mark Whitney

    I’ve been studying a bit about Minor White lately while putting together a blog post about him. White spent a lot of time thinking about the ‘why’ of photography. None of us has the single right answer, not even White, perhaps there isn’t one.

    As a young man White turned from writing poetry, which had at first preoccupied him, and took up photography intent on making it his preferred medium. Writing in 1937 he said, “In becoming
    a photographer I am only changing medium. The essential core of both verse and photography is poetry. And I have felt the taste of poetry.” – from “Minor White, the eye that shapes”

    Maybe all good photographers are poets at heart. Shomei Tomatsu said that photography and haiku are the same thing. White spoke of the duality of the artist and his/her subject. Only by expressing that duality can a photograph be truthful. The poet strives for the same duality through words.

    I don’t find any evidence that White ever rode a bike, but I think he would have liked it. I’ve been riding for longer than I care to admit. Flying down a country road with the sunlight flashing between the trees is a poetic experience not to be missed. I actually wrote a poem about it once. If I can find it, I’ll send it along.

    Godspeed on your quest.

    Reply
  8. Rob Campbell

    Looking back over this thread’s quite interesting: so far, nobody seems able actually to define a precise reason for involvement in this photography thing beyond, perhaps, an “I like it” which can perhaps be the most honest reason of all, though it hardly says very much.

    For myself, I can’t pretend to any motive such as stopping time, but I do very much appreciate having a very few prints of my late wife that give me a focus sometimes whan I find myself speaking to her otherwise invisible presence, which is very often and at all manner of moments during my day. The alternative is speaking to myself… that said, it would be a fib to say her pictures exist through any sense of a grasping for posterity at the moment of shooting: every one of the very few images – other than one – was shot for some prosaic purpose such as passport or driving licence photos, not a whisper of either poetry or anything else as cerebral. In fact, I find it extremely difficult to look at any image, from anyone, anywhere, and experience visual “poetry”, should such a thing even be able to exist. I do see skill or lack of it; I can get a sense of association with other images, somewhat similar, from other sources and feel that somewhere down the line somebody came up with a fairly original schtick which became popular, and then aped to death. That very much seems to be the fate of photography: a succession of second-hand stylistic gestures that eventually swamp the original and sometimes wind up with a later copyist carrying off the glory rightfully due another, less promoted photographer.

    As I ponder this photographic urge some of us experience, my mind drifts to the matter of the cellphone camera. Could it be that that instrument has finally arrived as the ultimate tool for the satisfying of an interest that formerly required dedicated tools? Is the ‘phone camera actually a spiritual and fiscal release, all that the snapper really requires or actually wanted, that the entire baggage of bodies, lenses and all the rest of the paraphernalia that making a picture once entailed can be gratefully dumped in the new honesty of where most photographers reside? Does owning expensive gear force one into having to think of what the hell to do with it all now that we have it?

    I understand too well the urge to use photography as conduit to a glamorous lifestyle; however, when that period ends, which for a majority it does at some stage, what remains, as a reading of Sally Mann’s autobiography might unintentionally suggest, beyond the past, well-known works and a struggle to keep enthusiasm alive by changing from one technique to a radically different one? Diane Arbus discovered that her own fame/noteriety in photography wasn’t enough to keep her interested in continued existence; a very young Francesca Woodman employed gravity and flew down from a height to meet her end. I find little poetry there, but lots of tragedy. Perhaps photography isn’t actually the thing some seek and imagine it to be from the outside.

    I have been spending a lot of Covid time looking at street photographer sites on the Internet. It’s a curious experience watching some of these people doing their thing. They appear to be living in a photographic high that consists not of any kind of photo-reportage or similar; the goal seems to be to steal pictures of people going about their daily lives. There is no pretence to any decisive moment, no attempt to tell a story; there is only the desire to snap people because they are there, and get away with doing it. So far, I don’t remember any of these chaps saying that they do it to see how it looks as a photograph, but that’s a treat probably still in store. 🙂

    One or two are actually very good photographers and have a point of view, present a broad visual statement of some personal sense of style and expression. I can see their appeal to some commercial clients. However, even for the world-famous ones that leave behind thousands of unprocessed images, how on Earth do they manage to make ends meet? Is that done via academe, further piling up the questions, the doubts, that teaching such things as photography can create? It becomes so tempting to imagine a massive, incestuous world of teachers, students, gallerists and curators conspiring to create a fantasy based on nothing more than a few camera clicks and brilliant marketing. In essence, an in-crowd that’s essentially born in a college and spreads its tentacles until they end up on an auction floor, at which point their work is done, another empty god is created.

    Frankly, the only guy with a good reason to make photographs is the one with a commission from somebody: not only does it grant him the means and the reasons, but also the direction of travel: there’s none of this revealing questioning of the motivation such as which lens will I wear today? because all that’s irrelevant, simply because the purpose is genuine and does not have to be manufactured in an argument with the self. I think the amateur status is anything but the ideal that it is sometimes thought to be: there is no requirement for discipline, both in the accumulation of equipment or for direction of travel. Instead of starting the working day on a road to somewhere definite, the amateur can find himself starting his in a trackless desert. At least, that’s pretty much been my photographic experience in the two versions of the life.

    I thought that I was living in the middle of winter: according to my Spanish calendar, that begins on the 21st of this month. How odd.

    Reply
    1. Keith Laban

      Rather than considering and contrasting the professional and the amateur – done to death – I prefer to think in terms of applied art and fine art. Of course in order to do this I need some kind of definition of these terms. For the sake of this discussion and in the context here I think of applied art as those works partially or wholly in the command of and for others and fine art as those works in the sole command of the individual. Applied art is central to the application rather than to self. One is not better than the other, just different.

      Throughout my career as a painter, illustrator and photographer I’ve found work for self far more challenging than work for others and to this day have found it to be far more rewarding.

      But, Rob, I’ve a feeling we’ve been here before.

      Reply
      1. Rob Campbell

        Yes indeed, we have been here before, simply because there’s nowhere else to go as destination for the quandry, for the question about point of departure in pursuit of something specific, and what to do next about it. We face it every single time we feel the desire to pick up a camera: what we gonna shoot that’s worth the hassle? Maybe that’s where the gearheads with lots of spare loot get their jollies: testing camera after camera and lens after lens, instead of getting any fulfillment from the images themselves as statements of something personal, as expressions of vision of some kind.

        I like your definition and distinction at the start of your post, above, and have no argument about the points you made; I’m not sure that I was trying to say one was intrinsically more valuable than the other, but I was trying to say that the pro situation is easier because the road map is presented to you by the client, whereas in the amateur status, there is probably no map at all, just a sense of need for one. On top of that, the amateur status doesn’t offer the bonus that’s apart from the money: the sense of validation that comes with being handed the gig. Usually, you can’t buy that. (That the amateur may feel pleased on pulling something off, well that’s a buzz often shared by the pro.) I don’t think validation gets less attractive as a career progresses; if anything, perhaps it becomes the greater part of the reward, but don’t tell you accountant that.

        Reply
  9. Ivan

    I am equally devastated and hopeful with this news.

    As a long-time reader, but infrequent commenter, I find myself agreeing and empathizing with your thoughts on photography – the battling feelings of exhilaration and infatuation; frustration and disillusion with Leicas, film photography, and picture-taking in general.

    I very much enjoy your thoughts and analysis on the medium – what we as photographers are trying to say, accomplish, or communicate to our loved ones or others with our images. I wish you the best on this journey and am hoping for good things for you and your family in this and future years.

    Reply

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