A manifesto for a more wondrous age.

What is Photography?

Photography is about light. More specifically, it’s about focusing light onto a surface in order to capture it, so that it can be stored or shared beyond the moment depicted. This was first done nearly two hundred years ago, using silver nitrate, in exposures that lasted hours, or even days.

Before photography, there were very primitive cameras, camera obscuras or pinhole cameras, which focused light to be seen by the human eye. However, without a method to store these, they weren’t photography. They were merely novelties, illusions.

Photography has gone the way of many technologies, from large, cumbersome machines, to smaller handheld devices, as we consider cameras today. Much like when picturing a computer, you probably think of a desktop or a laptop and not a room sized calculator, to most, a camera is simply something you can carry.

In addition to size, it has also gotten much faster, with exposures that once took hours before, now able to be captured in thousands of a second. The camera I use is capable of making a photograph at up to 1/32000 of a second. That’s wicked fast.

Light comes into a camera through a lens, and is projected into one of a few different places, depending on the camera used. In an SLR or DSLR camera (SLR meaning Single Lens Reflex), the light gathered is reflected up into the eyepiece through the use of a mirror. In a rangefinder camera, like a Leica, you’re not looking through the lens at all, but a smaller window that shines through the camera, which shows you an approximation of the frame depending on what lens you’re using. In a mirrorless camera, the readout from the sensor is shown to you live.

A bit more philosophically, but also literally, any photograph you make is a moment that you don’t see as a photographer. If you use a camera that is either an SLR or a DSLR, the mirror has to move out of the way to take a photograph, temporarily blocking your view, regardless of if the camera is digital or analog. On mirrorless cameras, the feed is cut off for a fraction of a second, so the sensor can register the exposure. On rangefinders, you never saw the exact image at all, merely an estimate of it.

In some ways, taking a photograph is the process of storing an image of a moment for you, the photographer to experience. In this view, there are moments to be captured, and moments to be directly experienced, as in capturing the image you’ll miss out on the moment for yourself.

Photography is also an exploitative art. What do I mean by this? Nearly always, in the process of capturing the image, the goal is to leverage a resource or an idea for someone’s gain, most often the photographers. Sometimes this is overt, as in taking an image of someone less fortunate. Other times, as in with landscape photography, the exploitation is of the composition itself, leveraged to reinforce a privilege or facade the photographer has.

However, even given such exploitation, the photograph also has the power to communicate truths to an audience in an extremely accessible and effective way. This can be through conveying empathy, like in street photography, by showcasing people in a more intimate or relatable way than through the usual defensive or cynical gaze we carry to the streets without a camera. Or, back to landscape photography, it can be used to showcase the awe or wonder of the natural world in ways few have the privilege of directly viewing.

Regardless of how one makes a photograph, or what it is used to depict, the person behind the lens should always be aware of the moment they’re missing, of themselves with the camera, and what sort of message is conveyed through the resulting photograph.