Do you have any idea how many photos you’ve taken in your lifetime? For most of us, the answer is probably “I can’t count that high.” Speaking for myself, in a given week I easily shoot over five hundred shots including those for my camera shop, this site, and the countless admittedly repetitive photos I snap of my two baby girls. I’ve got boxes overflowing with negatives, hard drives loaded with RAW files, and one outrageously packed drawer of Polaroid prints.
Before a month ago, I hadn’t paid much thought to this incredible volume of photographs I’ve amassed over the past fifteen years. I’d pick the ones I’d use on the site, or that I’d like to have printed, and the rest got stored. And I think that’s how most photographers work. Show off the best, hide the rest.
I’d always tried to make the best photos I could, and I always sought to improve my abilities with a camera. But it wasn’t until very recently, when a friend pointed me toward a really interesting website, that I bothered to question the purpose of photography in a truly meaningful way. What am I photographing? Why am I photographing it? What makes a photo work for me? And when I keep a keeper, what is it about that photo that makes me consider it a keeper?
The site that stoked the fires on this train of thought is called Physical Grain, the brainchild of photographer Ray Larose. At first blush, it’s just another photo show-off site generating content by way of user submissions. But on closer inspection, Physical Grain differs from similar sites in many important ways. First, they only publish one photo per week. Just one. This automatically lends added significance to each photo that they post. Next, they demand actual thought from the users who submit material in that they request each submission be accompanied by 80 to 250 words explaining the background of the image, plus information on the camera, film, and development process used.
These wrinkles in the usual formula changes things. The trickle of published photos means that viewers have time to really examine each photo, time to read the thoughts of the photographer, and time to comment and communicate with the photographer and other viewers in a meaningful way. It also means that users who submit photos are more likely to invest substantial time and energy into choosing which photo they’ll submit (only their best, presumably). This automatically ensures that the submitted photos are of a certain meaningful quality. The human touch on the editorial side means that submissions are curated, and that every post contributes something to the greater conversation. You can’t just dump your favorite fifty photos onto Physical Grain and bask in the hollow peer accolades that follow. This is especially contrary to other sites, sites that are often nothing but a platform for meaningless and reciprocal back pats (like for like, bro?).
And this interesting approach to the oversaturated image showcase genre got me thinking. If I were to submit a photo to Physical Grain, which photo would I submit. And it wasn’t until I tried to answer that question that I realized how difficult that question is to answer.
Go ahead. Try it yourself. Try to sit there and think of which single photo is the favorite photograph you’ve ever made.
The answer eventually came to me, but it took weeks of thinking and some real introspection. It took looking at thousands of photos, some made by me, many others made by famous and not-famous-at-all photographers. It took a thorough examination of whose shots I like, answering the hard question of why I like them, and being brutally critical of my own photography. And that last part is absolutely the most important part, and if you take only one thing away from this article, it should be this; if we want to make great photos, we need to be our own belligerent editor.
If the idea behind your photography is to take lots of photos and occasionally make a pretty shot of a sunset, or capture moments in your kids lives, that’s totally fine. That’s basically what I’ve been doing for the past fifteen years, and I’m no worse for it. I’ve made hundreds of good photos, photos that I’m personally happy with. But if your goal with photography is to make great photographs, to make objectively excellent photos that anyone could look at and really appreciate for their content, or for their message, or for their sheer craftsmanship, well, the sad reality is that you’re going to have to start really criticizing yourself.
I’ve started doing this. I looked at thousands of my own photos, including my so-called keepers, and really picked them apart. Why did I shoot that shot? Dutch tilt? What was I thinking? Backlit portraits? Could I be any more predictable? Extremely shallow depth-of-field for no reason whatsoever? Ugh! And, yes, I even begrudgingly admitted that photos of my sickeningly cute daughter aren’t automatically the best photos in the world (though I may not be totally convinced on this point).
Hey, at least I never gave in to the Christmas-lights-Instagram-portrait fad. My photographic future may still be salvageable.
Don’t misunderstand me; this wasn’t a pleasant process. At one point, I realized that ninety percent of the times I’ve pressed a shutter release button, I’ve made pointless and boring photos. I’m a pretty bad photographer. But the result of all this effort of thought is that I actually know why I shoot photos now. I know what I love about photography and what, at least in my opinion, makes a great photograph. The jury is still out on whether or not I can actually make such a photo, but knowing what I value in a photograph is at least an incredibly big first step toward actually making a great photograph.
All that’s left is to go out and make one.
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Very, very interesting post James! I’m really curious about how this has affected how you’ve been making photographs since? Have you shot far fewer? Or shot the same amount but been far more ruthless in the editing and in what you keep and share?
It’s humble of you to admit that most of your photos are “pointless and boring”, and I expect most of us reading this are in the same position, we just maybe haven’t admitted it yet! Plus we forget that even the greatest photographers only kept/shared a very small percentage of their overall output.
Definitely food for thought going forward with my own photography.
PS/ Love your comments about sites that are “nothing but a platform for meaningless and reciprocal back pats (like for like, bro?)” – I’ve never understood this, and recently have begun an Instagram hiatus (again!) for this exact reason – I don’t get the point of it.