Why I Gave Up Photography to Be an Artist

Early into my photographic education I was confronted by two main ideas:

  1. That photography is a language capable of expressing complex ideas through images alone, and
  2. That photography could be used for good, by exposing more people to more “truth”.

Being a practising rationalist (or at least an aspiring one) I was always very sceptical of the first proposition, and would often cringe at portrait photographer’s romantic descriptions of how powerfully a photography could speak about a person.  Other photographers have also plainly said that a good photograph needs no words, and that if any text is required it’s due to the poor quality of the photos themselves.

My view is that photographs are best at being either mechanical illustrations or abstract art, but alone they are poor communication devices.  The second proposition is perhaps even more of a contentious issue, and I tend to look at photography in two different ways:

  1. From a psychological perspective, photographs make up a significant part of our modern environment, and in one way or another are largely used for advertising purposes. Because photographs represent compelling evidence it is difficult to guard against or even recognise their effects. Because photographs are always out of context, unless written context is provided and taken into account, the photograph will provide the final word on what truth is.

In summary, photography, or perhaps more explicitly the use of the photographic image is a dark art, and exposure to such images is not conducive to rationality.  In effect, I see the camera as a tool for creating bias.

  1. The second way in which I consider photos is like that of the news or perhaps other superfluous information. While such information may be novel, if it cannot be acted upon or prove to be practical it is either Darwinian entertainment [see The Biology of Visual Aesthetics by Bjørn Grinde] or dis-empowering. This is not an argument against the truth of any photo or piece of news, but an argument against the utility of certain knowledge.  There is such a thing as harmful information.  Furthermore, to watch or read the news and its accompanying images is to accept the privileged questions of whoever is the one presenting them to you.  In practice what this means is that you must ask yourself “why should I care more about X than any other world event?”, and “if I believe that knowing all such information is important, then why don’t I seek it out, instead of being directed by someone else’s or my own biases?”

Having rejected, or having never accepted the two main proposals I realised that I was not a photographer as my mythical heroes proudly were – they believed in the power of photography and were under its curious spell, whereas I remained sober.  So for me, being a photographer is more than just about making images or even real prints, but is based on a belief in the medium itself:

” If photography is religion, then I am an atheist with a passion for non-secular architecture.”

So what keeps me doing photography now is the process which has ironically become much more complicated, random, messy and unpredictable now that I work in the lab and not at the computer.

When I first set up my darkroom it became quickly apparent that not only was a traditional, hands-on, analogue-only approach more conducive to creativity, but more importantly, my natural tendency or strength is not in being traditional, but creative and experimental.  I had ideas of being like James Nachtwey or Edward Burtynsky, but as always I discovered that I was not like my would-be mentors, or even a strange hybrid of them both; I was just me.  So whereas I saw the darkroom as a necessary requirement for fulfilling the photography myth, it actually turned out to be a whole new adventure in itself, one in which I was free to create and discover things for myself without the weight of any preconceptions.  And just as photography had previously killed art, art rose from the grave to spare photography from a similar fate.