Photography – Why Do We Do It?


Well why do we do it?  I suppose it is a desire to record what we see around us.  We photograph our friends and relatives, our children and anything that we find interesting.  Of course, this desire to record people and the environment is not restricted to photography.  Before the invention of photography painters and sculptors did the same thing, and still do.  They also explore their vision of the world by moving into the surreal, something which happens in photography too.  Here it is referred to as ‘Creative’ and occupies a special section in some exhibitions and learned societies.

But this desire to record the environment goes back before the days of the painters of recent history.  Cave paintings, particularly in France and Spain but also in Indonesia and South America, have been discovered which go back 40,000 years.  These record in amazing detail the animals that were around at the time, and the paintings also show great skill in their execution.  For example, some 30,000 year old paintings were made by blowing the pigments through a hollow stick to spray the colours on to the wall.  This is what we now call an Airbrush, and it is still there in Photoshop today.  You didn’t realise that Photoshop has its roots 30,000 years ago!  Another amusing aspect is that the earliest cave paintings were monochrome, with colour coming along later.  Sound familiar?

The cave artists were lost to history for some time, possibly because an ice age or two got in the way and their caves were not discovered until recent times.  But they did show that this desire, or need, to record our environment is very deeply ingrained in us.   The art of drawing and painting resurfaced in new civilisations and developed through new technology.  The cave paintings of pre-history were made largely by daubing the colours on to the walls or by a primitive form of airbrushing.  The paint brush as we know it seems to have been developed slowly from using leaves to daub the pigment, into the finely crafted artists’ tools that we now have.  There is now even an electrically conductive paint brush that can be used on touch sensitive screens!  New technology indeed.

One of the interesting techniques developed by artists was pointillism.  Developed in the late 19th century it is a method of building a picture from multiple coloured dots placed close together so that when viewed normally, the eye blends the colours together to create a picture.  Does this sound familiar?  It’s an early form of digital printing!

But when did photography start?  Most people will refer to Niépce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot in the first half of the 19th century.  But the camera obscura, a darkened room with a small hole in one wall, was described by Chinese and Greek philosophers in the 5th century BC.  In the 16th century the image was brightened by enlarging the hole and inserting a lens.  This was later developed into the portable camera obscura, projecting the image on to a piece of translucent paper and allowing artists to copy the image by drawing over it on the paper.  Surely, this was true photography?  The means of recording the image was human rather than chemical or electronic, but the recording medium is not what defines photography!  It could also be regarded as the first instant print camera, well before Polaroid!  If the artist used pointillism to record the image on the camera obscura it would be the first instant print digital camera!

So our desire to take photographs is simply a modern aspect of a very primitive urge to record everything around us that we find interesting.  But then what do you do with your photographs.  The early cave dwellers made archival prints that still exist after 40,000 years.  That beats any technology that we have today!  Nevertheless, we have available printing techniques that will produce archival prints to last a hundred years or more.  Do we take advantage of this?  My guess is that the vast majority of photographs taken today remain as electronic files which will last only as long as the appropriate viewing technology remains current.  With the rate of technological progress (if that’s the right word) this probably means only a few years before your pictures are lost.  Remember floppy discs?

We can only wonder what the ancient cave dwellers thought about their pictures.  What were they used for?  Maybe they had competitions with an invited judge from a neighbouring cave!  You can imagine the scene.  The judge studies all the paintings on the wall and then walks by them, stopping at each one to give a grunt.  Occasionally he will “Ooh” instead of grunting – that’s a Highly Commended!  And so on.  “Ooh ooh, aah aah,” would be first place.  Of course all the caves in the region would have to belong to the NCPF – the Northern Cave Painting Federation, which would in turn belong to the Palaeolithic Art Group of Britain – PAGB.  Maybe there were international competitions and exhibitions too, under the auspices of FIAP – Federation Internationale de l’Art Palaeolithique.  It would have to be French as they were some of the earliest cave painters.

But seriously, what do you do with your pictures?  Do you show them to others or do they just stay on your computer as little bits of electricity?

Why not put your best ones together into a show and offer it to your club?  I don’t want to hear shouts of, “I’m not good enough.”  If you like your pictures, then probably other people will too.  And there is no better way to improve your photography than having to show your pictures to other people.  Give it a go.  You’ll find the experience rewarding, and then you can start showing them to other clubs too.  I know there are club members here who do just that and I’m sure they will agree with me.

You could also try entering a few exhibitions – national and international.  Don’t rely on the views of one club judge on your pictures.  Judges opinions can vary, and exhibitions usually have three judges so you get a broader opinion on your images.  The three judges usually mark from 2 to 5, or in some exhibitions from 1 to 5, and I recall one international that I entered when one of my pictures got individual scores of 5, 3, and 1.  That meant that one judge thought it was worth an award, one thought it was average and one thought it was rubbish!  The moral of the story is don’t be put off by one judge’s poor opinion.  Another might think the opposite!

It doesn’t stop there of course.  As you gain confidence in talking to groups of people about your own pictures, you may find that you develop an urge to comment on other people’s photographs.  It’s called judging and can be most enjoyable as you get to see a wide range of pictures and you also find you can learn from them.  It’s a two way process.  You try to suggest ways that pictures might be improved, or you see some pictures where you think, “I wish I had taken that!”

The one really good thing about judging is that it qualifies you to criticise all judges!  I can cheerfully say what I like about judges!

You can also have fun in judging.  I was once judging a Still Life competition and one of the images was of a dead fly on a sheet of white paper.  I thought this was pushing the definition of still life a bit far so I suggested that we might possibly include it on the basis that there might be still life in it!

Well thank you for listening to me.  I hope you all enjoy your photography and that you do your best to show your pictures to others.  Enter the competitions and don’t be too upset if you don’t win.  Blame it on the unimaginative judge!  But above all, do have fun.


Note: Guy and Paula Davies were guests of honour at the Durham Photographic Society Annual Awards Dinner, 17th February 2017. This transcript of Guy’s after dinner speech is reproduced here by kind permission of Guy Davies 

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