What picture is worth taking?

This is a tricky idea to articulate, so bear with me… I think there is an interesting question of when it is worth making a photograph. (Perhaps the same is true of making a painting, or some other kind of representational art. I’m thinking of those kinds of practices, rather than those that relay on what’s in front of you, whether that be music, abstract art, or photography in the ‘directorial mode’.)

As photographers we face it every time we pull out our cameras, and I think having a permissive, exploratory, creative response to this question is key to enjoying the practice. If you’re always worrying about whether a thing is worth capturing (or an image worth making), it’s just going to be really stressful, and not fun at all.

Cabbage Fields

The question is given a bite when we look at books of ‘proper’ photographs. Those that are taken by famous photographers, or hang in galleries, or are bought at high prices. These context clues of authority and quality pre-determine how we might approach this question, when we look at such images.

Here’s one by Simone Nieweg that I came across in a book about the Dusseldorf School of photographers. A picture of a field of cabbages. We know the image was worth making, because it’s in a respectable book about artist photographers. But what was she thinking when she stood here and pulled out her camera? What made her think it was a picture worth taking?

Cabbage Field, by Simone Nieweg

In the book, Stefan Gronert refers to her documentary approach, being a student of the Bechers:

What is certainly beyond doubt is her similar [referring to the Bechers’ work] quest for archival documentation, but here it takes on an unmistakably lyrical tone.

Stefan Gronert, p. 34

In my mind, the urge to document is enough. When I see Nieweg’s pictures I feel a sense of freedom. I imagine she’s making photographs for herself, of images she has visualised without regard for any authorised agenda. 

Make a record of your life

I enjoy the videos of Matt Day on YouTube. He often talks about the value of photography in documenting one’s life. I think that’s the only heuristic you can follow. Here he talking about documenting family life:

And here he is talking about the Paul Graham set of books, A Shimmer of Possibility:

This is a set of images that pushes the everyday documentary approach to an extreme. As Day says, in a lot of the sequences it looks like nothing is going on. But the tension between nothingness/banality on the one hand, and story or significance on the other, gives the work vibrancy. And the tension is heightened because of the context. This is an expensive box set, and Paul Graham is a Proper photographer. So there must be something here … but is there? And back again.

Yielding control

He references another video interview given by Graham, in which he talks about the lack of intentionality in photography (as compared to other art forms like painting – perhaps more additive, rather than selective practices).

Perhaps the question, ‘Is this a picture worth taking?’ is the wrong one. It ascribes all the agency to the photographer, whereas in reality a photograph is more of a collaboration between the world and the person holding the camera. The photographer doesn’t need to have a specific intention. It might be enough to orient oneself in an interesting way with respect to the world – to learn how to live an interesting life and maintain a creative relationship with it. Or as Joel Meyerowitz says, “be out in the world with your eyes wide open, your mind fresh, and see what writes on you.”

Being frightened

Here’s a different take, that sets a higher bar, by another photographer I enjoy on YouTube, Alec Soth. Here he quotes Oliviero Toscani on the photography-led Colors magazine (about 10 minutes in):

He’s asked, ‘Is there any photographer or artist you think could carry out a project as pioneering as Colors was in the early 90s?’, and he says, ‘Certainly, only that no-one teaches them not to be frightened of being frightened. If you do something without being frightened it will never be interesting or good. Everyone wants to be sure of what they’re doing. Any really interesting idea can’t be safe.’

While that does set a higher bar in one sense, it also I think shares some of the shimmering quality of not being certain. You don’t have to be certain to take the picture. Let’s also not forget that Toscani (whose work I admire) also published a book of pictures of shit

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