Does intent influence photography? By which I mean that if I’m just out for a walk and happen to take a camera with me will my images be any different to those I’d have taken if I’d gone out intending to complete a dérive or make images for my portfolio? Or if I’m out and engaged in routine domestic activity will that change how I see the world through my camera? For that matter, does what photographic device I am carrying (phone, digital or film camera, pinhole etc) make any difference?
I’ve probably not explained that very well so let’s take this morning. It’s a weekday and on most weekdays I leave the house around 8.20am to walk one of my grandsons to school. There are basically two routes and he always chooses; it makes no odds to me as both take the same time.
Today it’s the front door route. Out of the house, turn right and walk to the end of the terrace and through the enclosed path behind the pub. Down a slight incline, turn right and walk in a straight line until the school gates are reached. A simple walk, it takes under ten minutes, twenty if you include the return.
On days like today I leave the house intending to return straight home after seeing Harry safely into the care of his teachers. I always have my phone and sometimes a camera as I often make an image during the walk back. I’ve been working on a picture-a-day project since October 2017 and these “insurance” images take the pressure off me if the day evolves in an unexpected way. So, whilst I have a camera the purpose of the walk is practical and mundane and definitely not something I’d class as a dérive. Or “serious” photography.
At this time of the year the sun is still working it’s way up above the terraced houses yet it still sneaks it’s way through the gaps, bouncing off windows and creating wonderful patterns and shapes. I can’t resist. Never.
This morning I made four images during the journey. Each uses the shadows created by the rising sun as it filters through gaps in the houses. None are what I’d call pictorial; I doubt if anyone thinks they are pretty and they are certainly not traditional picture postcard material. I’m probably the only person who will like them, especially once I’ve removed the colour.
They aren’t really documentary images either except in the sense that they are documenting something I saw. Rather they represent the way I responded to the urban landscape. These are the vignettes, small slices of the landscape, that caught my eye this morning on a walk I’ve probably made hundreds of times now.
As I’ve been writing and thinking this morning I’ve realised that, to answer my own question, whatever my reason for being out I still photograph with the same intent. What differs is the amount of time I can devote to the act of photographing the world around me. However, this is something that has evolved over time so in a way is a learnt behaviour. I do remember a time when I termed an outing as either a “serious” photographic expedition or a “snapshot” day. The former would inevitably be me alone with “proper” kit including a choice of lenses, two or three cameras and a bag containing filters etcetera. The latter? Any time when I was with a member of the family or when the trip was for a specific purpose other than photography.
So what changed? Well, I did I guess. I believe that subconsciously I must have gradually realised that any outing could form the basis for “serious” photography. Slowly the things that caught my eye when out with a camera started to merge into a more coherent form. Still an eclectic mixture but the “serious” and the snapshot have gradually merged and I just take photographs these days. Perhaps “serious” photography should be renamed as “my” photography?
Thinking about it, I have always made photographs that appealed to me. Yes, I went through a brief period of entering competitions and did so successfully. But I very quickly realised that in many ways I wasn’t being successful as a photographer but as someone who could identify an image that a camera club judge would deem worthy. I enjoyed the accolades at the time but it was a brief dopamine hit if truth be told especially as I realised that in a lot of cases I no longer liked my own photographs any more! I soon reverted to making work for myself. If anything I took a conscious step away from the typical camera club aesthetic and returned to film photography, embracing pinhole for the first time and in doing so found a photographic genre that really resonates with my view of the world.
I have habitually carried a camera at all times for the last fifteen or more years. Every time I leave the house I am full of intent. My intent is to capture images that resonate with my view of the world. Whether that’s through a day dedicated to the craft or something I fit around other activities is irrelevant to me. Be it a couple of quick images on my phone or several rolls of film. But it hasn’t always been like that and I’m sure the same is true for many people.
Turning briefly to the last question in my opening paragraph. What difference does the type of camera make? The only difference it makes these days for me is from a practical perspective. I routinely carry a wooden medium format pinhole camera in my bag and with exposures lasting into the minutes I am constrained in where I can place the camera in an urban environment by the need to stay out of peoples way. My panoramic swing-lens camera has a clockwork motor and is not a discrete tool; I was using it recently at an indoor exhibition (photography was allowed) and in the cavernous mill loft I was sure that people at the far end of the room could hear every exposure as it was made.
In truth I can only answer the question I originally posed through the lens of my own experience. For me the answer would be that it used to make a difference but not any more. I make images that appeal to me, that reflect how I interact with the world and how I interpret it. Increasingly, the images that I share are the most personal rather than sugar-coated picture postcards (think stunning sunsets or sunrises) and in many cases are the complete antithesis of the work currently in favour amongst many photography enthusiasts.
Finally, I spoke with someone yesterday that I’d not spoken to since before the pandemic. She and I had both been on the same college course a few years back and had stayed in touch. Writing on the college forum later she said: “Love the images you shared, very evocative and they are very much your style.” That made my day.
As for style that’s a topic for another day but perhaps the evolution of intent has been hand-in-glove with the evolution of my style?