The following article appeared in summer/fall 2016 issue (#38) of Outdoor Photography Canada (OPC) magazine. Subscribe to get this great magazine delivered to your mailbox. The latest issue (#43) is one of the best yet!
I recently found myself pondering a rather strange question…would I still photograph if I could never share the resulting images with another soul? This thought got me thinking about why people photograph in the first place. Most of us do share our memories, stories, travels, and life events with others. Without an audience to view our pictures what’s the point of making photos? Indeed, among art circles there is the contention that for art to exist there has to be a ‘connection’. You can’t have connection without an audience. By this logic art can only exist if there is someone beyond the artist to view it.
The point here is not to debate whether art needs an audience to be art but rather to get to the fundamental question of why we photograph, or why we create in the first place. Beyond recording memories and experiences, I suspect we photograph for many different reasons just like people write or paint or compose music for many different reasons. And, as with other art forms, I think we photograph because of internal and external motivations at heart.
Henry Darger was a custodian by day and a painter and writer by night. He spent most of his adult life creating fantastical paintings and writings in his spare time, and no one around him knew anything about his creative life. It was not until after his death when his landlord came to clean out his room that his art was discovered. Henry did not create his pieces with an audience in mind; he kept his art to himself and made his art for his own pleasure or more likely for his own therapy to work through his difficult childhood as an institutionalized orphan. Darger’s motivations and reasons for creating art were internal.
I wonder if there are few Darger’s out there in today’s era of social sharing. I can think of plenty of artists, probably the majority, who produce work for external reasons. They feel they have something to share with the outside world whether that’s simply to share the joy and beauty of nature as they see it or to make social statements about the world around them. They make art showcasing how they see the world but knowing at the time of creation that they will present their work to the world.
There are dangers to both approaches. For those who do it purely for internal reasons there is a danger that what you create will be too personal for anyone else to understand should it ever be seen. On the other hand, because the work was not created for an outside audience it will be pure of intent. When producing work to share with others the results are often more accessible but there is the likely possibility that the responses of your audience will inform the content of your art. I see this latter point a lot in photography where social media responses to a photographer’s work colour what and how they photograph. Personal work that does not get a lot of ‘likes’ is abandoned for a style of photo that generates many positive responses. There is the real danger of creating homogenous and predictable or fashionable and trendy work.
In the end, I think we all need to look at why we photograph and what camp of artists we generally fall into. Are you a navel gazer or a social sharer? Once you know your true motivations you can then try and avoid the pitfalls that lie in wait with either approach. In my own photography I started out making images purely for my own purposes without expectation or need to share. Later on my photography became all about sharing what I saw with others. It soon began to feel like I was creating for an audience and not for me. I am now returning full circle to creating for internal reasons and I feel a new spark of inspiration. Will I ever share this new work? It’s hard to say but for now I am creating a new body of work just for me and it feels great. So would I photograph if I couldn’t share the results with anyone else? The answer for me is a resounding yes! What about you?