Why do I photograph?
By: Fr. William Paul McKane
Among those who photograph, some point and shoot the camera; some may spend hours taking a simple, carefully composed image. No doubt most people snap-shoot most of their pictures. Few are they who spend considerable time and effort capturing the image they want, and nothing more or less. Ansel Adams was one who spent hours on most of his famous photographs (in taking the picture, developing the film, and then printing the image for presentation). About snap-shots, I have little to say. One just takes the picture. And snap-shots are taken for many diverse reasons. The following brief thoughts are intended as a reflection on why I take photographs, and especially those requiring thought and care.
Surely a large number of my photographs are snap-shots, in part because the subjects are in non-fluid, disjointed motion, such as dogs or human beings walking or running about. Some photographs I take are quickly done because they are products of a passing moment, or because the subject may be of fairly passing interest to the mind. Others photographs were given considerable time and thought. Such photographs require one to select the appropriate depth of field (F-stop), time duration for the exposure, and a fitting focus for the chosen center of interest being photographed. And most importantly for the image conceived, one must intelligently decide what needs to be included in the photograph, and what needs to be deliberately excluded. Failure to exclude extraneous or distracting details can mar or even ruin a good photograph, or at the least, will require cropping at a later point. And of course while using digital imaging, one must choose whether to conceive and shoot the picture in color, in sepia, in black and white, or in some special effect which one’s camera may permit. It needs to be admitted that some of my photographs were conceived in the mind, before I ever lifted the camera. And then there are those special photographs that virtually beg to be taken, when the subject--usually a landscape--presents itself to the mind in order to do it justice, to present this manifestation of beauty in a just or true way.
Regarding taking photographs that require thought and effort, the question arises: Why photograph at all? The shortest and most direct answer is this: By nature the mind pursues beauty, and when beauty presents itself to the mind, one wants to engage beauty, to enjoy it, to examine it more closely, and even, if it were possible, to immortalize it. The human mind desires on-going contact with what it discovers to be beautiful. The mind also desires union with the good and the true, but the pursuit of goodness or truth is not the primary motive in my photography.The motive in photography as art, as in painting or drawing or sculpting, is to present the beautiful. And not only to present beauty to oneself and others, but in some way to immortalize it, to make it more or less permanent with a kind of permanence that time allows. Time is not permanent. Nothing in time is permanent. But the human heart and mind desire permanence, endurance, immortality, foreverness. The human being wants to live happily, well, completely--not only for a moment, but for ever. Careful, deliberate, thoughtful art, and in this case, photography, is essentially an effort to pursue, to engage, to enjoy the beautiful, and if possible, to immortalize it: In the words of Shakespeare: “That thereby beauty’s rose may never die.”
Beauty is a face of the Divine in time. When one recognizes some one or some thing as beautiful, one is responding to a silent call: to recognize beauty, and to find in it a glimpse of the ultimate, of the Divine Itself. In photographing beauty, as in a landscape, one is actively sharing in the creative moment of beauty, so that the seer and the seen, the photographer and nature, are one in a simple act of being. One becomes what one sees, and the photographer becomes, to some extent, one with the scene photographed. Hence, in seeing the photograph, one is also seeing the photographer; in the art, the two have become inseparably united. In other words, photographs are not “neutral” or impersonal, but intensely revealing images both of the seen, and of the one seeing.
Most of my deliberate, more or less careful photographs are landscapes or details of nature, such as photos of the inside of a flower. One could ask, “Why do you take mainly photographs of nature? Do you not see beauty in human beings?” I would answer that I do indeed see beauty in human beings, but it would perhaps be impertinent, inappropriate, simply not done, to stop people on the street or wherever one meets an image of the beautiful, and say, “May I photograph you? For I glimpse the divine Beauty on your face, in your form.” Rather, one photographs perhaps not the most beautiful, but beauty that is available and presenting itself. And physical nature is available and presents itself. In photographing nature, landscapes, animals, close ups of nature, no one would wonder, “Is this inappropriate?” or “Is this photographer perhaps overly attached to that image?”
Then there is an additional reason why most of my deliberate, conscious, freely-chosen photographs are of scenic nature.To think, to consider, to contemplate require not only time and effort, but solitude of spirit. When one is busy, distracted, in noise, bombarded with many images, with motion or commotion, one cannot concentrate and contemplate. When one is alone and quiet, the mind awakens. And in the awakening of the mind comes a longing and reflection on beauty that presents itself. Rarely am I alone and quiet unless I am outdoors, off by myself somewhere, perhaps with the dogs (who wander about, doing what dogs do-- explore, sniff, chase, hunt). When I am alone, I look around me, and just wonder, and absorb, and feel gratitude, and sometimes am moved by a powerful feeling called “awe.” And the spirit--whether in words, or simply spiritually, says “Wow! That is Beautiful!” When one is awed by Beauty, one needs to respond. Indeed, the call of Beauty can be compelling, so one must respond in some way. What is a fitting way for one to respond to beauty in nature? One cannot marry nature, or have sex with nature; so what does one do? You sit still, enjoy it, or if you wish to have that image somehow linger, then photograph, paint, sketch, or write about it. Let the words, the poetic words, come up. But I am not a poet. Poetic words and images do not well up in my mind. What does come to my mind is a simple, direct seeing of Beauty in nature, and so I respond with photography. In other words, photographing nature for me is one way to thank the Creator for the gift of beauty in nature, to thank the Creator for the gift of enjoying beauty in nature, to thank the Creator that he has given me a mind to enjoy his beauty. And last, but not least, the Creator of all has given me the opportunity to share the vision of beauty with others. And so I photograph. And sharing the images becomes easier through displaying them on the website.
My desire is that each of us be more open to the divine beauty around us and within us, and to be alive, thankful, aware, and protective of beauty, nourishing of beauty. And, if possible, to return to Beauty through art.
Addenda: Finally, I have at least three additional reasons for photographing. First, because my vision is poor, I do not see well what I want to see. In a scene, such as looking at Belt Valley, I see some beauty, I sense more beauty, but I also believe that there is more beauty there than I can see with my eyes because of my weak vision. So, by taking a photograph, I allow myself to look at the scene more closely, and in stillness, and perhaps in more detail than I could possibly see with my spectacled eyes. Second, by photographing (by “writing in light”), I have a memorial, a reminder of what I had glimpsed, of the beauty seen. And I have more than a reminder: In the photograph I have an invitation to seek and to behold the hidden Beauty once again, and perhaps now more truly, more completely. Third, photography in pursuit of the beautiful is a spiritual exercise. As one trains oneself to do good and to avoid evil, to speak the truth and to avoid deceiving others, so one must train oneself to see and to appreciate beauty. It does not just happen. Education in perceiving, enjoying, respecting beauty takes much more work than most people probably think or care about. Photography is a way to train the mind to behold beauty.