Photography can be artistic, enlightening and a life legacy

Photography: Because when I look at my life, I cannot say I have done nothing
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A soaring eagle is an example of John Enman’s artistic expression in this photo. (Photo by: John Enman)

John Enman

My friend Elvis, a photographer and teacher in Alberta, asked me to answer the question, “Why do photography and why take pictures?” He had also asked that question of his students and was waiting for their answers.

I posed the question in an online forum and received some unremarkable responses like, “Because I can” and “Because I have a camera.” However, I received answers like the one from someone called Soenda who eloquently said, “Because taking pictures has helped me see better. Before, I was less aware of the way light strikes leaves. I didn’t notice the symmetry of birds on a wire. Sunsets were masses of agreeable colour; now they are gold, pink, lavender and blue.”

Here’s another from a photographer named Laura who philosophically wrote, “Because when I look at my life, I cannot say I have done nothing. The proof exists that I have seen at least a wee bit of the world. I take pictures because it is artistic expression, and I think when we repress our artistic nature, we do ourselves no good, no good at all. I take pictures because it is fun. I can spend the entire day taking pictures, and it could not be a day better spent. I take pictures because I would like to decorate my grandma’s house with pictures of flowers. She is fond of flowers and if one can bring a bit of happiness to someone else, that is possibly the best one can do.”

I thought about how, for me, photography changes. There are times when I just want to play with the equipment, interested in nothing more than experimenting and knowing how something works. In those instances I could make a grand statement like, “I am testing this for future use.”

Sometimes I wonder about how some subject, like a building, a tree, car or whatever I see will look on my computer display or as a large print.

There are occasions when a camera allows me to document or record a memory of particular subjects.

And I also collect pictures of things in which I am interested. For example, I have complete construction photographs of home renovations I have done. I photograph my friends, family and pets.

And of course photography and making photographs was the way I earned my living for 30-plus years. There are times that, like the eloquent Soenda, when I am trying to visually create something that says something to others about what I see.

Many see photography as a way to express themselves artistically. Expressing oneself through photography is easy, as it doesn’t require the trappings of other mediums like painting or sculpture, it merely requires a camera.

The first surviving image made by Jacques Daguerre, inventor of the Daguerreotype, was of some artistically arranged plaster casts resting on a window ledge in 1837, and a short 20 years later photographers were wandering the North American wilderness and newly constructed cities creating photographs with the same intensity, perhaps not in the same numbers, as we today. Photography became a way not only to document, but also to express one’s feelings artistically.

Why take pictures? For many it is to document history, we know about the Civil War in the 1860s through the photographs of Mathew Brady and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s by David Kennerly.

Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams, Elliott Porter, Imogene Cunningham, Bret Weston and others gave us their visual opinions of American landscapes and if we asked any of them the question “Why take pictures?,” they may have said something like, “To show others what we see when we experience the beauty in nature.” There were those like Dorothea Lang and Walker Evens during the great depression of the 1930s that may have said, “We take pictures because we want to show the human condition.”

Photographers like the famous Arnold Newman, Richard Avedon and (Canadian) Yousuf Karsh celebrated the portrait and those like them might say, “We do photography because we want to celebrate the beauty of the human expression.”

The question “Why take pictures?,” for some, may be very philosophical and for others practical. In response to Elvis’ question Soenda commented, “Because taking pictures has helped me see better.” And Laura, “I take pictures because, when I look at my life, I cannot say I have done nothing.” I wonder what readers of this column might answer.

Stay safe and be creative. These are my thoughts for this week. Contact me at www.enmanscamera.com or [email protected].