So, Um, Why DO People Photograph?

Feeling, as I sometimes do, in need of inspiration to get out and shoot something, I recently got around to reading Why People Photograph (Aperture, 1994, ISBN: 0-89381-597-7), a collection of essays and book reviews by Robert Adams. I had previously encountered his earlier Beauty in Photography (1981) – essentially a defence of photographic art for its own sake – and I hoped that I might be able to discover in the later writings something to recharge my enthusiasm enough to kick off a new round of projects.

The problem with collections like this (or so I find), regardless of size, is that you need to approach them certain threshold of enthusiasm. I don’t lack patience, and I enjoy reading just about anything, but whatever revelation or insight you hope to find, it will probably comprise less than one per cent of the total content. The remainder will seem increasingly irrelevant with each paragraph, no matter how articulate.

And Adams is articulate, in a self-conscious fashion that prevents him from sounding at all pretentious or condescending. I presume the academic-and-accessible manner stems from his background as a secondary-school teacher. His enthusiasm for landscapes, and by extension, the environment is palpable, surfacing in many of the essays. I might say that all of the essays and reviews have an easy feel, but that couldn’t express the obvious care with which the author crafts each of them.

Notwithstanding, by the third essay, my impression of Why People Photograph was a feeling that it was a bit… sparse. Photographic literature, and criticism in particular, represents an inversion of my Special Theory of Readability, in that it cannot be too heavily illustrated: It becomes job of the prose to serve the pictures. Shore’s The Nature of Photographs has (by my reckoning) an image for every seventy words. Adams rations us two plates per essay. When discussing imagery, the text can be spoiled by too many words.

If you reference a particular image as supporting your argument (or contradicting it, or being thematically, contextually, or even tangentially related) you had better bloody include it in your book, ideally on the very next page. Most tellingly, Adams does reference his own work in his essays, but beyond the front cover that work is nowhere to be found in the book.

I didn’t find what I was looking for in Why People Photograph, though, in a sense, it did give me the push I needed. On balance, I do feel the richer for having read it. I’ve come to the conclusion, that inspiration isn’t some precious pay-dirt to be mined. It now seems like a much more elusive quarry. One that must be hunted.


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