By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF US ENTER PHOTOGRAPHY WITH THE SAME AIM, that is, to arrest the flight of something precious with the trick effect of having frozen time. Someone or something is passing through our life all too quickly, and we use our cameras to isolate small pieces of those passages like a butterfly inside an amber cube. That means that our first work is our most personal, and, while we may later graduate to more general, more abstract recordings of light, subject, and shape, we all begin by chronicling events of the most intimate nature.
And as we grow into more interpretative, less reportorial imaging, we also grow away from the clear, focused aim of that earlier work. Be it a triptych of a birthday, an anniversary, a wake or a christening, we understand clearly what a snap is for, what it was after. Its purpose and its message are unmistakable, something that cannot always be said for other kinds of photographs. Indeed, looking back on some of our own output at the distance of just a few years, we can actually be at a loss to explain what we were going after in a given photograph, what we were trying to say. This doesn’t happen with the snap. Its subject matter, and the degree to which we correctly captured it, is readily visible.
This may speak to why photographers are often asked why they don’t take “more pictures of people”, or, more specifically, why did you take a picture of this person? Do you know him? No? Then why……..?? It isn’t that a connection between yourself and people who are strangers to you can’t be made in a photograph. It’s that it’s a lot harder to effectively tell that story. it requires less from the camera and more from you.
You need to fill in a lot more blanks in a tale in which fewer elements are pre-provided. You can convey something universal about the human condition with a picture of something outside your own experience, certainly. It’s just that it’s easier to make the link that exists between you, your mother, her birthday, and her surrounding gang of friends than between yourself and someone who is essentially alien to you, or to the rest of us. Of course, on the other side of the ledger, you can also shoot a bajillion pictures of those closest to you, and still manage to convey nothing of their true selves. Mere technical acuity is not intimacy, or vision.
Still, in general terms, the snap deserves a lot more respect than it gets, simply because there is, in these personal images, a near-perfect match alignment of shooter, subject and clarity of purpose. By contrast, when we venture out into the greater world, trying to tell equally effective stories with much less information is hard. Not impossible, but, man, really hard.