Photography and Motivation: Taking Photos for Ourselves

December 10, 2017  •  2 Comments

In my previous blog, I started talking about our motivations for taking photographs. 

Vivian Maier is one of the best examples of "for ourselves" that I can think of. Her photography was very personal, and while she did take photographs of a more traditional ilk (pics of children for their parents, documenting her work as a nanny) most of her work was never really intended to be seen by anyone else. Indeed, there are undeveloped rolls of film that have been discovered, which means that Maier was taking photographs faster than she could (or would) process them and that even she might not have seen many of her own photographs as finished products.

So why was she doing it at all?

There's one photograph in particular that always evokes a strong emotional reaction for me. 

http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits/#slide-13 

(Please click on the link: I've not yet received permission to reproduce the actual photograph.)

You can see it on her face, she knew that this was a good shot. That playful smile also speaks to her sense of humor. Perhaps she also realized that the shot was kind of a cliche, maybe even silly and frivolous. That makes it no less brilliant. And I have no doubt that her smile here was for herself alone, a joke shared with her reflection that no one else would ever truly get.

Vivian Maier took a lot of mirror selfies; you can see more of them here: http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits - but importantly, I think her reflection shots talk as much about her place in the environment and the frame of the shot as they say about her. Susan Sontag talked about the camera as a barrier between photographer and the world; Vivian's selfies place her within the world, even as she remains slightly apart. A reflection is not the same as the thing it reflects. It is, like a photograph, a two-dimensional representation of a real thing. It's also reversed, setting it apart even more. But it's subtle.

Her shots where her presence is reduced to a shadow abstracts this idea of being a part of the composition even further.

This relationship between photography and her own reflection is a very powerful metaphor for me, speaking of the intimacy of the moment of capture, of the quiet triumph that comes with a good shot, or at least a shot that satisfies you, on your own terms and for your own reasons.

Sometimes a shot might be very satisfying technically; you know how hard it was to compose, or how difficult it was to get the lighting just right. It might not be very interesting to anyone else, but for you, it represents a step forward, growth in your skills or ability to capture your vision.

Some shots are very personal. Maybe too personal to share with others. Not because they are erotic or contain sensitive material (though they might), but because they are too emotionally intimate. Perhaps they might mean nothing to another viewer.

My father passed away in early November 2017. As I write this, it's still very recent, only four weeks ago. The day before he passed, I was wandering back to his room after visiting the little shop. I noticed this elevator door as it was closing, and saw the hand-print. At the time, it struck me as plaintive and lonely. It wasn't a large hand-print either and looked like it might belong to a child or teenager. 

I've taken photographs of elevator doors before. I am intrigued by the imperfect mirror of stainless steel, and the relationship between a lift door and the vague reflections within. One stands, waiting for the lift to arrive, or for the journey to be over once you're inside.

In this case, the hand-print was on the outside of the door, and I very much had a sense of the weariness that the owner must have felt to need to lean on such a temporary surface as an elevator door, a feeling born of illness or sorrow. It could have been my hand-print, given how I was feeling. They had been waiting for the elevator, I felt.

It had been a long wait.

 

I took the photograph on my iPhone because I wanted to remember how it made me feel. This photograph was for me. 

But I did share it on Facebook and Instagram. It was abstract enough to resonate with others in ways personal to them, while still allowing me to communicate my own sense of grief and sorrow in a way that words could not do justice.

There are other shots that I've not shared publicly. There's one I took of my father's favorite chair a couple of days after he passed away. The shot was unplanned. Technically, I suppose it's a decent shot. The lighting is interesting, and it's definitely moody. But the deeper level of meaning is so personal, and still so raw, that it's still too soon to share it. But I think that, at some point, I almost have to share it. So did I take it for myself? Or for others? If I do share it on social media or on this site, does that make it inherently no different from a photograph of my dinner at a fancy restaurant? Or a selfie? Why would anyone ever share anything so personal with strangers? 

This leads me into the final part of my series on motivation and photography, where I'll talk about the responsibility photographers may have to document the difficult and challenging, and to share those images with the world.

But I'll leave you with a question, and feel free to respond in the comments below: do you believe there are some photographs too personal to share? Have you ever taken any?


Comments

Photosjhoot
Hey, Jen!

I'll have to think about that a bit. I do agree that there are plenty of images that make me very happy just because I know how hard it was to fix in post, or how much work I put into composing the shot up front.

I don't know that I've had a lot of my stuff reviewed by art critics, as such! But I suppose I'd break it down into "popular on Facebook", "admired by fellow 'togs", and "personal favorites."

The "Tree of Life" shot from the last blog entry might be an example of it hitting all three categories. I knew I had something special when I took the shot, and then when I worked on it in post, it looked even better than I'd hoped. And it got a very good reaction on Facebook, and had a few people asking for prints!

I took that shot of the steam train earlier in the year, and people also liked that, though I felt it was only "meh." I was pleased I happened to be there, and I thought it looked nice in black and white. I don't know if it's a portfolio shot, though.


(isn't it weird I can't reply to your actual comment? I hope Zenfolio figure that out!)
Jen Hearn(non-registered)
"Sometimes a shot might be very satisfying technically; you know how hard it was to compose, or how difficult it was to get the lighting just right. It might not be very interesting to anyone else, but for you, it represents a step forward, growth in your skills or ability to capture your vision."

This resonated with me, especially because I'm updating my online portfolio.

When you're looking at your work, is it hard to know when an image is amazing to you vs. potentially amazing to others?

I think most photographers have images that are "crowd favorites", "art critic favs" or "personal favs. Do you have an image that you think covers all 3?
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