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Photography As Art

Why do so many people spend so much time photographing things? We take photos of ourselves, our babies, our friends, and our pets. We photograph the things that make us feel, those moments that appear to give our life meaning, to make it worth having lived.

We witness the beauty of nature but quickly separate ourselves from it, sacrificing the purity of that moment, for what? With such haste we dutifully capture as if witnessing some alien landscape, as if we were alien explorers sent to an unknown world to document for a future generation the fleetingly precious moments that make up our transient existence.

We make baseless uneducated assumptions about what importance future generations will place on the interestingness of our lives, while the truth is they'll likely be just as preoccupied with their own existence as we are with ours, doing whatever activity helps them avoid the unbearable thought of their own impending doom.

The self-portrait speaks the loudest to me. It's as if the soul inside turned the camera on itself and cried out, "I am here! I exist! My life has meaning!"

What is it about human nature that attracts so many of us to capturing moments of time? Is there something in our subconscious, something that remains aware of the limit on our lifespan, something that feels driven by a sense of self-preservation to seek out anything that might help slow or preserve time?

And where is all of this heading? For how much longer will the human race be obsessed with this newfound ability to capture reflections of time, to create something that appears to be uniquely ours but in reality whose value and meaning fades as quickly as the memory of its creators' existence?

When I was a teenager I came across a nature calendar that contained the exact same photo I had taken of a particular waterfall in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The photographer must have taken it from the exact same spot that I stood to take mine. But there was one difference: he used a slower shutter speed and that made the waterfall look misty as it came down the rocks. It was more beautiful and aesthetically appealing than mine, which, having been taken with a faster shutter speed, showed the water frozen in its tracks.

At first, the photo in the calendar filled me with a sense of pride. It was proof that I probably had an intuitive eye for composing 'good photos'. But that's where the story ends. I never again looked at that photo in the calendar. I didn't keep a copy of it and I never saw it again. Instead I enlarged my photo of the waterfall, along with several other photos that I deemed 'frame worthy', added it to a cheap frame, and hung it on the wall.

It didn't matter to me that someone else had taken the exact same photo, of the exact same waterfall, at around the exact same time of the year. It didn't matter to me that the other photo was better than mine. My photo meant more to me because I took it, because it was my photo, a frozen moment of my time captured by me.

But is there really any difference between my time and your time? If ten thousand people take a photo of the Taj Mahal, is there really any reason for me to take a photo of it? And then why take any photos in the first place? What happens in the distant future when everything has been photographed? When every single angle that could be captured, has been captured?

These thoughts lead me back to photography as art.

We create art as a way of expressing ourselves, as a way of capturing and communicating to others what we feel, but true art is not created because the artists' feelings have great importance, but rather because what the artist expresses -- the expression itself -- allows others to experience more of life.

If we focus our time and effort on creating art, then that is time well spent. But what is art? Art is not capture (what the camera does) but rather expression (what is done with the camera). The difference is subtle but important. One requires thinking about what you're doing, understanding why you're doing it, and constantly seeking to improve, while the other lets you get away with laziness and ignorance, pointing a device in the direction of your feelings and pressing a button.

After decades of taking photos, I can see that I have the skills to pursue photography as art, but is that what I want to do? Is my time better spent pursuing writing as art? Or is there some intersection of the two that will allow me to create better art?

And with a newborn on the way, I can't help but wonder: How much of my daughter's life will I be a photographer-dad and how much will I be a dad-dad?

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