The tyranny of photography

This time last year, I was sitting on my bed crying. My trip to Antarctica was a month away and I was overwhelmed. This was partly due to the preparation needed, which involved way more shopping than I was comfortable with (which is none). I also had to concern myself with my camera equipment—extra memory cards and batteries and an additional (unfamiliar) camera body and protecting all of it during Zodiac rides.

The main source of my tears, though, was the pressure to take photographs that lived up to the trip and to my expectations of myself and to my reputation among family and friends for taking good photographs. I was so stressed that I actually considered leaving the DSLRs at home and using only my smartphone for taking pictures.

It all started so innocently when I went on my first safari. I bought an SLR and a zoom lens and thanks to a friend, learned what I needed to use the camera in those circumstances. I practiced every weekend during the summer before the safari. When I came back, I was so used to having the camera in my hand that I continued going out with it every weekend.

Then people started complimenting my photos and suggesting I sell them. I tried various ways of doing that for a couple of years—contacting stock agencies (at just the time photos became easily available online!), making products with my photos on them, and providing prints on consignment to a local frame shop. The reality was that there were several mismatches between what I thought I could do and what was needed to do that. I had no interest in becoming a professional photographer and shooting on demand.

During this time, going on trips—vacation and business—involved taking not only the camera and lens, but a tripod so I could get ‘sell-worthy’ photos. Wherever I was, I would go out early and late to take photographs for my portfolio. When I traveled, I wasn’t finding a nice restaurant in which to eat dinner, I was picking up takeout on my way back from a sunset shoot, which, depending on time of year, didn’t end until after 9:00. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed it.

However, as I imagine is true with lots of long-term hobbies/activities, my interest waxed and waned. Instead of going out taking pictures where I lived, I’d haul out my camera mostly for trips. I’d use my tripod if I was out shooting at sunrise and sunset, but didn’t take it along for trips anymore. For a couple of trips, I didn’t even bother with the camera. For others, I’d contemplate leaving the camera behind but invariably have that ‘oh, what if I wish I had it’ thought and most times, I was glad I brought it along. Because I wasn’t shooting as frequently or as intensely, my technical skills got rusty and that would lead to frustration and ‘sheesh, what a load of crap I shot today’.

Then there’s the cataloguing of the photos. I happen to like process and organization, so I enjoyed establishing standards for filenames and figuring out a keyword hierarchy, but sometimes, I feel I will never get caught up on reviewing, assigning keywords, and editing.

So, in the last several months, photography and I have been having the relationship talk, as in ‘where is this relationship going?’

And yet…

For years, I said that photography was as close as I got to meditation. It was a flow activity, an activity in which I was totally absorbed and unconscious of time. I was ‘still’ in those moments, taking the time to look about me before I started taking pictures, experimenting with different settings, framing the image just so. I loved being out in the early morning, often near the water, catching the reflections and colors and light.

Photography reminded me to work with what I had. There were times I set out to photograph something and circumstances prevented it, like the overcast sky and snow the day I was down on the harbor to photograph the New Year’s Day sunrise. I know there was a sunrise, but it sure wasn’t visible! I was disappointed, but I captured one of my all-time favorite images that day.

I loved going on photography expeditions with my friend Phil. We’d start out in time to reach our destination at sunrise, which in the summer was pretty darn early. We’d shoot for a couple of hours, then have a cholesterol-laden breakfast. One time, we got so into what we were seeing and exploring, we stayed out until after dark. Later, we’d have fun sharing our ‘bests’.

I appreciated that my camera and lenses allowed me to make the world more interesting or beautiful. I could zoom in to show detail and pattern that weren’t obvious. People would ask where a particular image was from and be astounded that it was something they saw every day.

One of the best things to happen was to have someone walk by me as I was taking a photo and say, ‘wow, I wouldn’t have noticed that’ or ‘you made me stop and appreciate this’. That always made me feel good, as if I’d grabbed the person by the hand and said, ‘look at this—it’s beautiful’.

Most of all, using a camera taught me to see a different way. Whether I have a camera in hand or not, I notice things that I would not have noticed pre-photography, especially light. I’m sure I look quite half-witted sometimes when I stop and stare at a wall that is striped with the shadows of a window grate or the way a leaf is lit by the sun.

My sister and I had a text exchange recently that went like this:

Her: I will go through my photos and mark the ones I think are really good even though I’m not doing anything with them.
Me: As I’ve said before, does one have to do anything with them? Perhaps it’s what they do for you.

I think I might have unintentionally said something wise and pertinent to the relationship talk.

Image © Melissa Corcoran.

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