As I mentioned previously, in anticipation of an upcoming wet-plate collodion shoot, I have been spending a lot of time looking at historical plates and prints from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s to get a feel for the styles and perspectives that photographers of that era shared. As I was reviewing these images it made me begin to think about the value of photography.
Now, I am not talking about photographic images that are up for sale at your local galleries or even the big name galleries for that matter. I am talking about the long-term visual, historical and memorial value of images that may be taken by almost anyone with a way to make a photograph.
I was looking through quite a few images and thinking about how technically and visually poor they were. It was kind of disappointing actually. Here I was in an internationally renowned library and with the rare exception the photographs were poorly composed and executed, and it made me wonder.
A few minutes later I was turning pages from a family photo album from around 1911 documenting their trip to Yosemite and I started to get caught up in the untouched beauty of the locations and the ways that the families enjoyed themselves doing activities like horseback riding, hiking, camping and such. It was such a different time. Or was it?
Sure, the landscape and values were different but teenagers still looked awkward and annoyed, people were still trying to escape the daily grind and smiles were still either as forced or genuine as photographs taken today. Pretty soon I began to get lost in the progression of the trip through the story the photographs told. I started to enjoy myself and be inspired by the fashions of the time, the beauty of the wild Yosemite landscape and the physicality of a photo album from 1911. I walked away feeling inspired and excited to make more photographs. More moments that I simply want to remember and hopefully more moments that make people feel something. Inspired, hopeful, happy, longing, whatever it is, these are valuable moments in life.
The take-away from this experience for me is that photography is amazing. It gives all of us a way to share, remember and hold close our stories. Life is all about our experiences and these experiences all add up to make us who we are. With the world being a big as it is it is not yet possible to see and experience everything, but through the power and timelessness of photographs we can see and at least get a glimpse of what came before us or even has happened around us that we weren’t there to experience. It is a story in a moment captured for as long as that image exists. And that has value.
The next time that you look at work from the great photographers and are discouraged that your work may not be as “great” as theirs, keep in mind that any image CAN have value it just not be in the same way that you think it should have value. Historical perspectives, though maybe not shot perfectly or not being works of “art” can have great meaning to future generations.
Keep making pictures. Photograph things that make you happy. PRINT them as often as possible in a way that can be shared so that they won’t have as much of a chance to get lost on a hard drive somewhere. Someday, somewhere your images may mean a great deal to a viewer that you never even thought of. And that is valuable my friends.
Recently, my wife’s parents gave me a stack of photographs and a few envelopes of old negatives left from the moments of their past relatives. The image below is just one of those moments captured forever, and it makes me smile. Every face in it has a story and I’d love to know what it was.