Essay: It’s all been done before so why bother taking photographs?

I’m constantly getting back to this thought and feel it’s about time to share something with you that comes very close to my inner monologue. You have been warned. I highly doubt that we all have the same motivations to take photographs but it is interesting to explore my own situation and hear your experience, dear reader.

As far back as I can remember I carry around one camera or another pretty much all the time. I started with different consumer film point and shoots somewhere in my early teenage years around 1994. My motivation then was documenting the world around me. I continued to use point and shoots until technology changed and I got my first digital camera, a very cool Minolta DiMAGE Xt.

Jumping from film to digital didn’t influence my style or intended use of photography – I was still documenting my life and basically my photos were total rubbish ☺

This continued until sometime in 2012 when I found a discarded film SLR: a Pentax MZ-30 with a 28-80mm zoom kit lens in my office’s archive. I tried it out of curiosity and it turned out to be a bit of turning point for me. What changed? For some reason, I started to pay attention to image quality, at least the technical side of it. The main reason (most probably) was my newfound ability to play with depth of field, provided by a combination of the 35mm format and something better than a point and shoot lens.

For my next steps, I started to learn the basics of exposure and over time, more or less mastered it. I introduced myself to fast prime lenses, then got into close contact with digital photography using increasingly larger sensors (APS-C, full-frame). I went all the way to digital IQ perfection, then down the road of “spoiling” digital perfection by using old school adapted lenses. Finally, I got into medium format film.

Welcome to today. At present, I’m exclusively a film shooter using 35mm and 120 film.

Subject wise I still document my daily life, I like to shoot details around me. I’ve dipped my toe into the portraiture genre and participated in a few courses. From time to time I organize and run some creative photoshoots. Where does this all leave me though? I’m an average photo hobbyist with an inclination to portraiture. I work mostly with film and at the same time, I’m quite an educated photo geek with a deeper-than-average knowledge about tech, film and theory of photography.

Contemplating my path, direction and other objective issues. As far as I can see, all stable things are, in fact, totally not stable.

They have a tendency to evolve and change otherwise they degrade, disintegrate and disappear. I feel the same about all hobbies and my photography hobby is no different. Naturally, I feel that my photography has to evolve both in terms of quality and content. But here lies the problem – I know that I won’t become a “great artist”.

Becoming Ansel Adams, HCB, Lee Jeffries, etc., is just not possible for me, I don’t “have data” for it. Yes, I may produce one or few more interesting photos. Yes, I have already travelled a long path and my photography is not exactly “totally amateur” but I don’t have an innate gift to see. I didn’t finish art university I haven’t attended n+ workshops with the best artists, I don’t shoot 10 rolls of film each day…

What I’m trying to say here is that I’m not that devoted and even if I was, my work will never be “the best out there”. But I do look at my photography quite seriously.

Herein lays another problem: understanding that you won’t be the best and that you must evolve could be depressing. It can spoil the fun of a hobby, making it more easily abandoned. Things can get worse if you’re a perfectionist…like I am. On top of all that let’s also add the usual mantra:

“Everything has already been photographed, so why bother?” I would add: especially if you are not able to shoot it better.

Imagine the situation. I have an idea for a photoshoot, I scout and decide on a location, I look for a model and all the other vision-related stuff. I spend countless hours in preparation, do the shoot, get the pictures and…meh. It’s too naïve, it’s not polished enough and I’m nowhere near the vision that I had. Yes, I did what I had planned, but the impression is only modest, it’s not THE BANG I had intended.

The general problem I’m talking about here is goal orientation. On the one hand, being goal-orientated is very important. To quote Napoleon: “Those soldiers who are not willing to be generals are not good soldiers.” But if I think realistically, having a goal to be “the best” can be very destructive for a hobbyist photographer.

I decided that I’m a solder that doesn’t want to become a general. Does that mean that I’m a bad soldier? Well, I like to fight… ☺

What is the lens I try to look at my hobby through and how does that correlate with my belief that things have to evolve? Here comes some “enjoy the ride” philosophy combined with a smaller goal: motivation to be better, not the best. In fact, the goal, in this case is not THAT important. I still try to make my photos as good as I can. I look at and admire the work of professionals who create in my preferred style and try to analyse what they do, how they do it and why their photos have this strong impact. But when I look at my work, I compare it to my former photos and ask myself if I went further than before, or if I’m stuck at the same level of “quality”. It’s easier and more motivating for me.

One additional bonus for such an approach is that I get away from that “everything has already been photographed, so why bother” problem and that means a lot for my motivation to get up and shoot. To summarise, “enjoy the ride” or , “the process is more important than the purpose” plays a major role in my motivation. I’d like to take this a bit further by breaking down my personal view of the process into different aspects and analysing them one by one:

Photography enhances my ability to see

What I mean by this is that most people are looking but not seeing. We photographers are constantly and unconsciously looking for a scene and when we do encounter one, we have an ability to envision it, frame it and deduct distractions in our eyes and minds, even without the camera. It’s a superpower! ☺ And it gives us, or at least me, ability to find miracles even in ordinary and dull environments.

With that comes the joy of discovery, the sense of elevation at the moment of finding some interesting detail or seeing beautiful light, etc. An additional bonus here: a heightened raised need to explore is very beneficial to health. It results in greater physical activity. A casual walk or bike ride is more motivating because I have an additional goal.

Detachment from everyday life / work / problems

Photography as a hobby is quite a complex one. You have to immerse yourself in it. It takes mind, it takes vision, sometimes it even takes being extremely flexible in order to find the best shooting angle. It’s the switching of activity and quite a deep one. If you are able to catch the “flow” of shooting — yes, it doesn’t materialise every single time but I hope you are all familiar with this feeling — you can totally forget about “the other things” and after some time spent with the camera. You come out totally mentally refreshed. In short, for me, it’s a very effective sort of meditation.

And I’m just talking not only about photography itself but also talking about the connected things as well; while writing this text, for example, I’m “in the flow” and it feels the same as shooting.

Cleansing of mind

This one is connected to my previous point. It’s a more isolated case, which I experience mostly with portrait sessions. Time from time, I come up with an idea for a portrait photoshoot. It will often stick in my mind and I usually don’t rush to implement it because I know that over time, the idea running in the background will develop; I will add some details to it, sometimes it looks like that it evolves on its own. Most of my shoots require some organizational and creative work, so it’s not that easy to create one in just a few hours, but if I don’t do it, it will stay in my mind…

It’s true that one of the most annoying things is an unexecuted vision, it’ll haunt you. But the good thing is that after it’s done, I have a feeling of relief, the feeling that I made something that matters — for me, I’m not saying it matters for the world ☺. And that’s the true feeling of personal achievement, calmness and the idea is cleansed out of mind, cleansed together with some negative aspects that were stuck in my thinking processes, aspects not connected with that particular photo shoot.

The toys

To be honest, I like to play with gadgets… Photography is a very good hobby to have an excuse to do just that. I do like the feeling of film cameras. I value the mechanical precision, the craftmanship of camera makers. Some time ago, I was into bike building – not professionally just for my own interest. Building a custom bike for myself was the biggest thing I’d ever made with my own hands. I still use it and film cameras, lenses and related stuff are similar. I enjoy them and this “playing with the toys” thing it goes well together with creating images, like building the bike and riding it.

One thing worth noting: GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome — is a deep rabbit hole and sometimes gear can become a bigger hobby than photography. I know that’s not my path. I live with a “less is more” mantra, a greater concentration on shooting and less on gear. For some time I went the route of trying and changing cameras and systems and now, I’m more or less settled in with my minimal set of seven film cameras ☺

At least I know why I have them and when and for what purpose I’d be using, one or another.

Socialization

I’ve met a lot of interesting people since I got into photography. I keep direct communication with some of them and others I know distantly. The more I got into film photography the more I had the feeling that there is a strong international community and a very positive one.

I don’t want to get deep into that “film” aspect but there is a thing that’s its niche and people, community insiders have a common feeling that unites them: “keeping it real”. The cool thing is that it is possible not only to learn a lot but to teach as well, even for such relative novice like me. Communication, being social and feeling feedback means a lot for people and I’m no exception. Another bonus: knowing how to make photograph means an opportunity to make something valuable for my friends and relatives while enjoying myself at the same time.

The value of documentation

I will not stick on this, but having a photo archive that covers more than 20 years is interesting. Even bad photos that were taken 15 years ago start to become interesting. They might only be interesting for a very narrow circle of people but still have a value, an emotional one.

At this point, I think I have spelled out everything I wanted to say. To sum thing up I’d say two things: a) it’s the way that matters, not the goal, and b) photography keeps me sane and positive. Strong words, but true.

Reader, if this messy write-up gave you pause for thought, if you have a totally different approach, or you just think that I’m crazy, now it’s your time to spill the beans ☺

~ Aivaras

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Aivaras Sidla
Aivaras Sidlahttp://www.beautifulgrain.com
Photography is my hobby. It lets me see the world differently, to notice small miracles in dull environment, to detach from daily life, to recreate inner balance and to remain constantly positive. To sum up photography is a drug for me, and as I mostly shoot film – this drug costs money. Ha ha. While I don't consider myself "big artist” in terms of my shooting results, I try to be active in photography world in order to: -promote photography as an instrument that enriches personal view to the world - I mean that when you start to shoot you start not to look, but to SEE. World becomes more beautiful place to live. - promote film photography and to encourage new users to enter it. I have twofold reasons for it: a) it beautiful and people should try it b) as a means of “self defence” - more users means longer life of film and film cameras in the market 🙂

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Such an interesting discussion — your piece, and the comments! It reminds of a few things I have been thinking about recently. One is the book, “Art & Fear”, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, which gets at that feeling of “My images are banal and stupid and cliche’d and why do I bother?” that haunts everyone who takes the ego-shredding step into actually trying to put their own selves into their photography. The other thing is the extent to which photography seems to pull us in two directions — the rabbit hole of gear, and the search for the moment, the light, the energy that makes a photograph sing. Thank you!

  2. I took up photography a year ago to document my small flower garden. I soon realized that using a camera made me pay closer attention to little things, immersing me ever more deeply in not only the garden, but the wider world. Looking closer, no matter where, one discovers stories, and it’s the stories that drive my photography.

    I find it difficult to appreciate any photograph as a thing in itself. For me, if there’s no story to relate, then I have no interest. And by story, I mean words.

    When I happen upon a story, I photograph it, then tell, with words and pictures, that story to whomever wishes to hear it.

    Thanks for your essay.

    • Jerome, I am in total agreement with you about the story. Every custom print I produce has a small story that I hand write on the back of it along with other pertinent information. This takes the photograph and gives it a personal touch. The story for me is almost more important than the photo. I call it a touchstone moment. The photograph becomes the touchstone for the memory/story. I’ve been at this for over 40 years-still shooting film-and I still love the stories that are constantly being added to my personal memory/photographic archive. I wish you all the best in your journey into the world of photography and your adventure in looking for a story. As you make yourself more aware of the world around you, you will discover that the stories find you. Thank you Aivaras for your thought provoking story.

  3. Thanks, this echoes some of my feelings over the past few months.
    For me I was a casual photographer, I knew what I was doing and was proficient enough to capture what I wanted and didn’t really care what others thought – I knew what I liked.
    Over time I had acquired quite a few ‘old’ cameras and wanted to use them more than I was – I started a blog to document my collection and as I documented, my collection grew and grew and I ended up being more of a camera tester rather than a photographer; my subject matter was whatever I could see during the few photo-walks I had to get the roll complete; and it became a pressure to complete the roll rather than shoot what I enjoyed.
    Over the last year I have tried to return to being the photographer more and tester less and I have struggled to find my place. I am not a portrait photographer nor landscape nor street but I might do any of those – I am an opportunist and shoot what I see but this is another way of saying jack of all trades and master of none and as i think about my (very) small readership on my blog I wonder what they are expecting of me; finding the me again has been/is a struggle. If I have nothing unique to say then why bother; there are plenty of specialist blogs and photographers out there so what is my angle and what do I have to offer?
    I keep trying new things and new platforms to share my work knowing I won’t become a famous photographer but feeling that just somehow… stupid. The only forms for real uniqueness are nature, street and portrait these days – and I am geared for none of these and so I am unlikely to shine; my photos lately and quite mediocre I think.
    I really want to stop and take stock and re-think what I am doing but the more I stop and think the worse I feel about it and the less I find myself motivated to go out and shoot.
    I like your statement about your “minimal set of seven film cameras” and I have been trying to get to the point where I use the same ones more and either sell or store those that don’t fit me so well; the acquisition habit is hard to break though 😉

    Sorry for my rambling.. It is good to know that these concerns are not unique to me and I appreciate your struggle.

    • Some familiar feelings. 🙂 I still have a desire to test different gear and I still do it, but I made several rules for myself:
      – I have to have very objective argument what new ability new camera will give to me, cant I get the same with present gear?
      – I’ll not spend more money on gear. I’ll have to finance new purchase with selling some of present cameras.
      Frankly – I hate to gave too many options. It’s frustrating to think which camera to take, or bring too much of them. When each camera has specific purpose, I can use best suited for specific case.
      Its the same for me, changing gear to often mess with actual shooting…
      But having stated all that, I have to be honest – a set of seven cameras is not very narrow… 🙂

  4. Interesting.

    I spent a long time thinking about this too. I just got to the point that it doesn’t matter what have been done or what can be done in order to became substantial. I don’t even know what my style is, i just love to photograph. I just have to feel something, if I look and feel something I work around it and shoot it. It can be in the street, during the holidays or now at home during the lockdown. All I do is trying to dignify anything I shoot and seeing the beauty in anything I shoot. I just have to expose what I felt in that moment, if it works I print it, if not I just leave it in the drawer with the promise of revisiting my bad shots one day. As simple as it should be. Just shoot for myself and just try to shoot who I am reflected in what i see.

    All I’m thinking at the moment is starting a project, something I never done before. It doesn’t matter how long it can take. months, years…decades. I just have to feel I exhausted the possibilities and feel it complete. It has to be something crucial to me, something where I step confidently, something intimate, a strong body of work.
    I feel I owe that, again, to myself.

    • In some way I feel that this “it’s all done before” happen to be to focussed in my essay. What I wanted to tell – it doesn’t matter, do what pleases you and think less about what others will say about your photos.

  5. Wonderful essay! My interest in photography was also re-awoken when I started to be able to play with depth of field. I wonder whether it’s because it gives you a relatively easy entry into composition. You can isolate your subject pretty much wherever you are, so it’s easier to have a picture with a ‘real subject’. A thin depth of field will, of course, only get you so far, and it can become a bit of a crutch. By the time we realise that, however, we are hooked.

  6. Aivaras, this is one of the more poignant and thoughtful pieces I’ve read on this subject.

    We seem to be losing space for the amateur, the hobbyist, in our society. But hobby-ing is vastly important. From the US, I look at the UK – perhaps mistakenly – and see more of an embrace of hobbyists – clubs, social gatherings, dedicated physical community spaces, toleration for “characters.” But American culture privileges success, clicks, attention, “pro” status – and it doesn’t always go with virtue or quality. Many people seem to insist “I am an artist!” because some how having a hobby trivializes their effort. I don’t mean to knock anyone down. But I avoid talking a lot about myself as an “artist” because photography is a hobby I love – and I fear losing the passion as a hobby, to jeopardize the joy it brings, but proclaiming my status as an artist. Napoleon was wrong about a few things.

    I share your point of view – I really love the process of photography (digital and film), it’s important to me, I value making good pictures and try to make better pictures, and doing it gets me out of my own mind. No person with a camera in their hands can dwell too much for too long on their personal demons. I love the gadgets and toys, too. I love documenting. I love thinking about trying to capture the vision I have on the medium I’m using.

    What gives me a lot of reassurance is the parade of great “artists” who supported their art without forcing their art to justify itself and support them. Franz Kafka (my distant cousin) was a workers compensation attorney who asked that his stories be destroyed when he died. Herman Melville was a customs official. Wallace Stevens was a high-ranking insurance company executive, as was Charles Ives. Vivian Maier was a nanny. Philip Glass drove a taxi and worked as a plumber. TS Eliot was a banker. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. These people did not worry about going “pro” and these were not jobs they held before their achieved “artist” status. Arguably, they were all “hobbyists.”

    My first digital camera was also a Minolta DiMAGE!

    • That Minolta was cool. Btw it still worked till few years ago! 🙂 After I moved on to other camera, I left it to my father was using it for taking photos in his work. 🙂
      Found some interesting remarks in your comment – would like to share feedback.
      I’m from EU myself, but not from UK and I don’t think that its that different in US and EU – I’m talking about exaltation of “success, clicks, attention, “pro” status”. It’s trend everywhere as far as I do notice. But its kind of artificial construct – building non realistic show off person. But kids think that it’s real, and start to measure themselves to this non realistic goal / ideal. My opinion is that one can choose to “windup” into it, or not. It’s kind of connected to my opinion about goals in hobby – you can enjoy the process, or you can chase artificial ideals and try to be who you are not, for the sake of others / likes and attention.
      As for clubs, social gatherings etc. its difficult to say – I live in small country Lithuania and film community here is very very small, my guess would be – if you live in any bigger city in country where value of art is a tradition – you’ll find community.
      Good point about well know artists!

  7. Love the essay. I come across this issue as a painter quite a lot. I think it’s important to be authentic and let others worry about whether or not something’s been done before. Surely it hasn’t been done by you and if you are being authentic it can’t help but be a unique record of who you are. Definitions like “masterpiece” and “avant garde” aren’t relevant to the creative process but to the critical. I’m reminded of Barnett Newman’s excellent quote:

    “…aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to the birds.”

    • Quote is straight to the point and funny at the same time. Well, to get back to evaluation of work we perform, its less about worry what others can thing, it’s more about that it could be better. My present mindset is that it doesn’t matter that much, if I feel that I moved forward a bit to where I want to be and if I’m having fun – everything is totally fine.

  8. I’ve heard that statement many times. My response to that is no one has photographed my life or my family the way I have because no one else has walked in my shoes or sees what I see. My photographs are for me first then my closest family members and occasionally close friends. After that it’s all gravy. It’s about what I want to remember not what I think someone else will like. The first question I ask myself when I view my processed film is, do I like it, did I get what I saw and is it in focus? Some things don’t change-To thine own self be true.

    • Thanks for input! Valid opinion. But, as much as I agree with You – will highlight one point as I see it: documenting is one thing, but when you do build/creative/photoshoots – appears more ways of analyzing the outcome. What I’m trying to say, that it’s a bit different process most probably with different approach.
      But at the end of the day – it must be fun. That’s the real value. 🙂

      • I don’t see documentary photography as strictly utilitarian. Each person has different ways of learning and my way has always been whilst in the thick of things. The personal pressure to get the shot in the moment has always made me totally attentive to what I’m doing. One of my personal projects was photographing several stairwells in a parking garage over the course of 8 years. I used this time to hone my visual and technical skills but I also worked hard at expanding my creative thought process as well. How do I photograph a stairwell and make it interesting to non photographers. I consider this project my single most visually artistic endeavor but it could still be seen as documentary in it’s most basic form. What’s a masterpiece? For me it’s the last shot I took of my moms silken gray hair that she had braided and wound into a bun on the back of her head. Happiness, it really is the simple things in life.

  9. Very interesting point of view, I believe many of us – photographers, amateurs or pro – have the same feeling, at least I do.
    I think the most important thing is to be satisfied and happy our own work, no matter if this thing or that thing has been done by others…

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