In this piece of writing I’ll consider why we take photographs and what their meaning is. There are two layers, academic and personal, and I’ll examine both. You may find one interests you but not the other, or you may find one helps you understand the other. I’ll begin with my background and why, perhaps, the topic is interesting.
In two Masters degrees I noticed the same thing. Colleagues didn’t like the books and theory but I did. That traces back to A Level Sociology when I liked theory and others liked empirically based material. I wrote about existentialism, they wrote about work based study of a factory. It was a bad school but with good teachers. One of them said, all those years ago, the critical faculty was the important thing: Tony Perry was his name, degree from Southampton.
MA students wanted to make digital content with graphics, video and interaction, I focused on video and the psychology of the internet, we were all introduced to philosophy (Jean Baudrillard among others). Photography students wanted to take pictures and weren’t very interested in Susan Sontag (a famous theorist) but I was. I continued reading about photography for years, buying books for my shelves.
At university level you can’t only take photographs. There must be a thinking component to your practice and if you don’t like theory (few people do) it tends to be contrived. You find something to say about your images which is not, really, if you’re honest, why you took the shot.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading, researching, and writing about the connection between the theory and practice of creative endeavour. Employed by Salford University, I attended a conference at Edinburgh University called Understanding Creativity, and wrote a report about it.
Susan Sontag said we use cameras to justify the experience of tourism. Photography becomes the point of it. Simple photography for its own sake isn’t silly or pointless. I do it myself, using a compact camera like a notebook, for the fun of snapshots. It’s not art, not important for anyone else, and is not why you do it. You do it for fun and many people do.
Many people then begin to think about it more seriously and want to take “better pictures” and that’s where you find divergent paths. Classical composition, sunset drama, use a tripod (or not is my advice if you don’t have to and beware the mystique people build around this).
Sell to a magazine, enter a competition, and you find yourself in another world which is strangely talked about very little, because commercial interests are involved. If you take, say, a shot of a person in bright clothes looking down a valley, you refer to an image that sells for a magazine. It has no bearing on mountain or landscape photography tradition as such. It looks good on a front cover.
More serious photographers like to emphasise detail more than the wider view for artistic effect, which it certainly has. I do it myself but also like to frame the big spaces where I walk in Scotland, the Lake District, Pyrenees, Wales, Peak District.
It’s a very different approach as a “photographer” or as a “walker” based on aesthetic decision and intent. You can stalk a shot for hours, days or years waiting for the perfect light you’ve visualised, with camping in the hills to facilitate your capture. Or you can take a walk across Scotland, the Pyrenees or Snowdonia, moving through mountains and inspired by the expansive experience, where compositions arrive in the moment.
Technically (but not always) this can reflect in your choice of focal length: wide angle for the big views you’re enjoying or a long lens for the art conceived image. They’re not separate ideas, but it’s not a good fit if you’re backpacking for two weeks peering into the distance for small frame art compositions. You wake in your tent and your attention fills a vast distance; you walk eight, ten, twelve hours exploring a huge space. You cook, eat and sleep under a black sky with unfamiliar clean stars you wouldn’t want to select in isolated pockets of fifty or a hundred: you want a wide angle view of thousands.
What you do with your photographs and what they mean to you is another matter and personal. The link between image and meaning is unstable and to some extent projected, not inherent. That's why artists scrabble for words, to entice you into a wordy meaning alongside the image.
For me it’s simple. It’s not contrived or sociological, but phenomenological, which refers to the deep experience of being in a place. This is where I went, this is the frame I found, this space is beautiful: beauty, nature, mountains. As outdoor writer Nan Shepherd said I "go into the mountains."