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April 2017

Why do we take photographs

The urge to take photographs is a mystery that is slowly being unraveled. We have to discard all the common arguments that can be found on the internet and look a bit deeper. A sociologist will remark that taking photographs is part of a highly ritualized social protocol: we take pictures as tourists of all photogenic locations we visit and we take pictures as family members of important family and domestic affairs. We take pictures of these scenes and events because we want to remember what was the case. Memory is tricky and will fade anyway. In this age of the selfie, another motive has to be added: the photograph as tool for personal communication. Documentary photographers and photo-journalists may object and add that the idea that a photograph or a series of photographs tells a story, is an old one. A selfie does not tell a story but makes a statement.
Snapshots and selfies may be neglected by ‘serious’ photographers who see a photograph as a personal expression of sentiment or as an artistic creation. It is the age-old dichotomy between intention and documentation that has coloured the definition and appraisal of photography since the early nineteenth century.
When we ask why we take pictures, we must also look at the objects we take pictures of. Photographs are taken to be looked at at some time after the moment of recording.

When discussing the essence of photography the analogy between the eye and the lens is often used to show the similarities. This is too easy. Reality, some philosophers would say is not the physical reality we assume it to be, but there is a filter between the physical reality and our brain which transforms the physical reality into a social reality. What we see is not what there is. The brain will influence what we see, based on what is already known. Neurofysiology tells this story in a different way. The basics are indisputable. Physical objects bounce off photons and these reach the retina. The retina calculates the angle of the trajectory of the photons and a pattern of light intensities on the retina is used by the brain to construct a meaningful shape. This is the so-called top-down direction: the higher level of the brain influences the lower level processing. This is needed because the brain can process at best 1% of all visual information that is being transmitted through the eye lens. There is a good biological reason for this fact: the brain must process the visual impulses immediately to become aware of danger in the close surroundings of the human being in his environment. If it would take minutes to recognize a lion, we would never survive by running away.
Lower level processing is not influenced by the brain processes that select the information and construct an image. This lower level processing records the unfiltered visual information that the environment sends to us. Scientists do not agree on what this type of processing is and does, but it is evident that an ‘objective (unfiltered)’ scan within the field of vision provides us with an overview of what is ‘out there’ beyond our head.
The Leica viewfinder incidentally is a perfect match for this idea of visual processing. The viewfinder corresponds with the low level vision and when focusing on a specific object (the rangefinder patch) the high level processing takes over.
The lens has an easy task: it has only to transmit the photons and the emulsion records this amount and pattern of photons without interpreting the pattern. The comparison between the eye and the lens is a bit too primitive.
The accuracy and objectivity of the camera lens and emulsion has been one of the main reasons why scientists were so enthusiastically about the new medium. It could function as a welcome correction for the subjectivity of the human perception.
Here then lies one of the reasons why we take pictures. It is not the art instinct that Dutton describes in his book with the same title and not the preservation of the moment that Barthes mentions in his book ‘Camera Lucida’. It is the urge to record in an instant what we do not see and what can be preserved for eternity and for later study. It is the compensation for the scrupulous gaze of the detective who can see what others overlook.
There is more however.
Psychology adds some valuable insight: the drive to record scenes for later inspection and hoping that the recording is objective (at least immune for brain reconstruction) is one element. The other crucial element is the psychological relation to a scene. Studies have shown that persons get good feelings when looking at pictures of scenes and events that they were involved in and that produced at that time good feelings. Seeing the scene some time later, recalls the same good feelings as one had at the moment of recording. That is why parents take pictures of their smiling baby: looking at the photo relives that same good feeling of the moment.
That is also why ritualized photographs, taken because the social rules demand or prescribe it, have much less emotional value. A picture of the Eiffel Tower will not produce happy feelings, because the commercial version is much better and you were not happy when taking the picture in the first place: there is an obligation as a tourist, not a strong emotional bonding. The picture of the small bistro where you asked your girlfriend to become your wife, has strong emotional connections, but as a picture it may be boring. But it will produce happy feelings and that is why you took the picture: to relive these feelings that fade in memory.
Why then do you take pictures? Forget about art and rituals! Search and find objects you are curious about and that will give you good feelings when looking at the photograph again. Take pictures of events and persons that you were enthusiastically about when encountering. Forget about the classical rules of composition and free yourself to see and feel. Then press the shutter and process a straight print.
There is yet another motive to take pictures: this is what Winogrand did in the last stages of his life: he took thousands of rolls of film without developing or inspecting them. The idea was that taking a picture enriches the experience of being there and to feel yourself as a being. If this is your goal: a course of yoga might be cheaper and less time consuming.