Photography: What’s the point?

Here’s a photo of a puppy.

Cuteness overload: One month old labrador puppy

Ain’t it just adorable?

Of course it is! Everyone likes pictures of cute puppies.

But why am I showing you this photo? Because I’m proud of it.

No, not so much for its photographic technique but because I’m rather chuffed about the subject matter and everything that goes with the birth of a litter. Not surprisingly, over the last few months I took many cute pictures for reasons which include not only tracking the puppies’ development but also for advertising: many served as “product photos” (harsh as this may sound) because most of the puppies were put on the market.

Then there’s the aspect of personal memories.

Much in the same manner that proud parents take countless pictures of their children (whose numbers tend to diminish as the novelty wears off), photos serve as reminders of what the offspring looked like at a certain age because “they grow up so fast”. They will never look the same again.

Photos and the memories behind them are priceless – for a period.

With that said and now that certain affairs have been gotten in order and the puppies are bigger, I can return to the project of digitising my photo albums and consolidating what amounts to a rough count of over 8000 photos. There are duplicates, some are plain rubbish, and there are others that have completely lost all purpose and meaning over time.

Consequently, many are being deleted, and this has made me ponder about what it is that makes us take photos in the first place.

We live in a narcissistic age in which everyone with a smartphone is armed with a decent clandestine camera so that ease, convenience and opportunity are just some of the factors which allow us to capture and/or publish most any given moment of our exciting lives.

Take this picture of a burger, for instance:

Wimpy: The foundation of a good breakfast

While I can very well remember how, where, when and whom this picture was taken with (Fujifilm FinePix E510, Wimpy, Sandton City, South Africa, 2005-10-07, my wife), what has been lost over time is the “why”: why did I take this picture? What’s so interesting about this burger and who did I want to show it to?

For a long time I didn’t understand some people’s fascination with posting photos of their food or selfish selfies in front of some landmark or event.

Today I conclude that the duckfaces may have been right all along: they succeeded in capturing the essence of an exact instant to share it with a selection of friends/followers as it happens. Feedback is immediate. Tomorrow that moment is gone, a week later it’s passé, and someday it will be forgotten and get deleted. There’s hardly a point in printing the photo and pasting it into a photo album for posterity (where it may never get seen). The very idea seems almost absurd.

For many years I subscribed to the mantra of “capture and save everything forever” but eventually these things just weigh you down. Whatever the motive for the Wimpy burger photo was, it’s certainly lost now and has become excess baggage that just gets shuffled from one folder to another.

Here’s a shot of the motorcycle section in London’s Science Museum:

Just another meaningless photo inside a museum

Like a typical “tourist pic”, there’s no focus on any specific item in the exhibit because it was taken in analogue times when photography had a price tag attached (film, development, printing) and you’d try to make each shot count by squeezing in as much content as possible. It’s a poor photo which, at best, gives a rough approximation of what the museum looked like in May 1994 (which elevates it to a different type of significance — but that’s another topic entirely).

As it stands, I’m close to declaring snapshots of popular tourist attractions as some of the most pointless. Unless it’s spectacular or from an unusual angle, has otherworldly lighting or there’s something interesting happening at the same time, seriously, how many more ordinary photos of the Eiffel Tower taken from the same spot does anyone need to see? Just buy a postcard if you need a reminder that you were there! If there’s nobody significant also in the frame, taking a bland photo of a landmark by itself is senseless — especially if it was taken with sub-par equipment under less-than-ideal conditions.

As seen in thousands of photo albums...

We live in an age of information overload and visual saturation where services like Flickr or Street View allow us to instantaneously see what the Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace looks like (or looked like in the past) from most anywhere on this planet.

More photos of buildings and food

As a result, this old photo has lost its reason to exist; it is a poor representation of something that passed before my eyes (or camera lens) — very much like zoo animals: what’s the point in capturing a photo of a monkey in a cage or a leopard that cannot hunt? We’ve all taken those but what, dare I ask, is the value of the (inherited) photo below?

This barely amounts to a flamboyance of flamingoes

Who has never seen a flamingo or doesn’t know what they look like? Just google it! Excellent pictures are plentiful online, and books have existed for centuries.

The photo fails as a historic document. It has no journalistic value or artistic merit. It is neither aesthetic nor is there an underlying message. While there is no doubt that it meant something to whoever pressed the shutter at that moment (what was he thinking, who was he with, was this the first time he ever saw flamingos up close or did they do something unusual we don’t see?), this information is now, some forty years later, lost — and even then the very essence it attempted to capture would’ve been unique to this individual.

The photo is reduced to a mental cue to a back story known only to the photographer.

For example, let’s say your parents took a trip to South Dakota in 1975 and have 150 pictures. Were you there? If you were, I would probably keep them because it’s a shared memory. If you weren’t, then keep the pictures with your parents in them and anything that has meaning to you. This could be an old car you remember fondly or a family friend. Several pictures of Mount Rushmore with nothing personal in them can probably be thrown away. Also pictures of scenery taken from the car with no context can be [ditched]. — Rob Meyer

Ultimately, it is as utilitarian as this recent shot of equipment racks:

Telecommunications equipment, 2022

The image is one of many whose sole function was to document a site’s current layout for planning purposes. Once that task is finished the photo’s destiny is fulfilled and it can get deleted. There is no emotional attachment.

Or is there?

When I stumbled across an unrelated series of photos from the year 1999, not only was I struck by how much digital photography had improved (12MP iPhone SE vs. a horrible <1MP camera of unknown type) but also a small whiff of nostalgia about the hardware.

STC/Alcatel 8-34Mbit/s mux, 1999

Although “no one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget“, I look fondly upon it now as a reminder of the things I’ve left behind and a testament of how telecommunications technology too has progressed. Our daily regimen and humdrum are too easily ignored until they become but a failing memory.

Telecommunications equipment, 1991

That said, I’d be willing to bet that very, very few photos of the hypergroup translation equipment in Marshalltown were ever taken (let alone remain), despite the fact that a substantial number of people have collectively spent decades at that station. Likewise,  nobody ever thought of bringing a camera to school to document a typical day in class or on the cadets field — except for the horseplay during the last day before the final exams.

Not your typical school day (photographer unknown)

In the absence of other (or better) photos, picture quality soon becomes less of an issue.

Even the importance of specific photos may change as the photographers/owners become older. In fact, it’s turned out that some of the most priceless photos are spontaneous arm’s length selfies of my wife and me!

Typical tourist selfie with the Eiffel Tower

A photograph finally reveals its true value when it’s managed to survive previous culling exercises. To new generations it’s all just “meh” because Instagram is their photo album.

All photos and scans by Herby Hönigsperger unless specified otherwise.

This entry was posted in Photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.