Pictures are paltry

This is just a quick rant about pictures, particularly the idea of "travel photos". 

When I took my first photography class, my professor Laura Letinsky had a rant that she would give occasionally about how frustrating she found the language we commonly use to talk about photography. Her objection was specifically to the idea that you "take" a photograph and that a photograph "captures" something. Her argument was that saying that you "take" a photograph sounds like photographs are out there in the world and you're just snatching them up, like hunting butterflies with a butterfly net. "Capturing" similarly evokes the idea that there are moments out in the world, and you use your camera to scoop them up and take them home. Instead, Professor Letinsky argued, photography is a process of artistic creation just like painting or drawing: you create an image, you don't just take an image from out in the world and affix it to a paper backing. She gave us this rant to emphasize the importance of the photographer in the process of photography: the photographer is always the author of the work; the work cannot exist independently of the editorial choices of the photographer, because those editorial choices are themselves the work that went into creating the piece of art. 

Obviously travel photos are generally not trying to be works of art. That leaves me wondering, though, if they're not works of art, what are they? What are they supposed to be? What is the purpose? 

This post is inspired by several people who have said, after looking at my blog, that they want more pictures. This always happens to me, because I don't take a lot of pictures anymore. I used to photograph everything, because I was hoping that if I took enough pictures, some of them would turn out to be artistically powerful. Then I started taking photography classes and really thinking about my editorial power as an artist and realized that sheer quantity is not enough to produce an image that mattered, and so I started photographing less, but with greater intentionality. So now when I travel I take many fewer pictures, and unless I'm specifically intending to use the images for artistic purposes later, I usually just take pictures on my phone. 

I find it frustrating when people ask me for more pictures, because I find the idea of travel photos frustrating. If it were up to me, I would take almost no travel photos - maybe just one or two here and there to immediately text or send to someone, or because I'm looking at something that I really want to remember the visual details of. 

Here's why: I think that travel photos are either incredibly phony, or incredibly shallow. Travel photos are phony when they show good and interesting things. I wish I could just post photographs of all of the things that are broken: of the bedbugs in the first room I was living in here, of how the lights are all burned out in the hallway, of how the toilet wobbles, of how difficult it is to get the shower to be hot but not scalding, of how byzantine the laundry situation is, of how rude shopkeepers are sometimes. Pictures are phony because those kinds of things are not the things that we take pictures of. We take pictures of the things that make everything seem great and ok and wonderful, because those are the only things we want to remember ten years later. To me, that's phony. If "the travel guide might not be that far removed from the genre of self-help" (see the founding post for this blog), then these kinds of travel photos are not that far removed from the genre of promotional photography. Meanwhile, travel photos are shallow when they become evidence. Why do people photograph the Mona Lisa? Why do they photograph themselves next to the Mona Lisa? Because they want to prove that they actually went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa. No one needs their own photograph of the Mona Lisa in order to look at the Mona Lisa. You need that kind of photograph as "evidence" to "prove" you were there. I think that's shallow. First of all, a photograph never proves anything in an age when it is laughably easy to doctor an image. Second of all, why should you need to prove anything?!?? If you know you were there, isn't that enough? Why do you need a photographic document indicating that you were in a particular place? 

I often find myself photographing while traveling almost begrudgingly. I begrudgingly think, "well, this is something that I guess other people are going to want to see so I guess I'm obliged to photograph right now." If it were up to me, I would only photograph interesting art that I want to look at later for inspiration, or ridiculous/funny things that make me laugh. I would never photograph historical locations or pretty landscapes. I would rather just enjoy seeing them with my own eyes, eyes that are better than even the best cameras. If those sights fade in my memory with the passage of time, so be it. That's part of being human.