I have been thinking about the motivation to photograph a lot recently. Thinking about why I do it and ruminating on why other other people choose to do it too. I have an account on eyeem where I post pictures from my phone. I use the filters which I would never do on on flickr and prettyfy my shit until it looks a lot like everybody else’s. I never considered why I treated those things differently to the stuff I put on flickr, I just did it. It is the way it is done, I am part of the gang of look at me.
I thought about motivation a bit more this week because this week a few people have shared a New Yorker article (The Last Days of the Twin Towers) with me. A lot of people share articles about photography with me, especially articles about loners who take photos and then get famous for it post mortem. In my more paranoid moments I wonder if people are dropping hints. It got to the point last year that I got roundly sick of Vivien Mair despite this fantastic shot:
The fairly consistent, ‘have you seen this…, you are a photographer…, you’ll find this interesting…’ and then a link to the same old articles about her and others on buzzfeed with their clickbait headlines can be a little stultifying.
Anyway, the article from the New Yorker is related to 9/11. An Estonian called Konstantin Petrov who worked in the world trade centre took a lot of digital photos of his place of work and posted them on a site called Fotki. Some of the pictures are just plain lovely and some are banal, but they all have that held in amber quality that you get when you suddenly unearth a photograph of your long dead grandparents looking young and vital, because they are of something irretrievably gone that you were never really aware of. This image is particularly arresting and it would have been without the heavy weight it now bears. To my super nerdy self, even the darkness on the flag somehow gives it more weight:
Nobody could have forseen what actually happened on 9/11. Whatever the plan, nobody knew the buildings would come down like giant reverse rockets no matter what the intention of the abhorrent ideology that arranged it. For more than just a day or two, most of the western world at least stared at the same footage on their televisions or looked at the same photographs in magazines and newspapers in disbelief while the families and friends of the close to 3,000 dead were funnelled into an existence that they will never fully be permitted to escape. It is that collective experience which gives Petrov’s photographs their immediate power, but it isn’t the only thing that is of interest about those photographs. I have no critical imperative to judge his pictures good or bad. I am interested because Petrov had the urge to photograph his surroundings because they interested him. I cannot get into his head, he died in a motorcycle accident within a year of the destruction of the towers but it is questionable that he could have fully understood their significance as they have only really been publicised recently. I know in my own mind the motivation is to frame something. Not physically and hang it on a wall, but intellectually, to put it in a space, to isolate it, to use the lens, the shutter speed, the film speed, whatever comes to had in order to isolate it further and then to look at it long after the contents of the frame have moved on.
I would have struggled to put this into words until recently when I have been thinking about photography and why I do it. I have my own extensive back catalogue to look at and the things I captured have changed hugely through time. Petrov’s images are doubly significant due to his own death in a motorcycle accident (caused by what appears to have been his own reckless behavior) within a year of the attack. Like Vivienne Mair, there is no possibility of an interview to outline just what was going on as a result the opinions of others gets draped over the catalogue and the artist.
There has been a lot of noise about both of these photographers, obviously far more about Mair (and much of it seems spurious or ill informed); focussing on the individual rather than the camera and why some people felt the need to learn it, carry it and use it on a daily basis. I think Mair and Petrov have more in common with the instagram and eyeem tribes than might be apparent in the first place. I think that phone pictures are not less worthy or interesting just because they are so ubiquitous. What seems to be getting lost in the discussion is the very impulse that why someone might have done it in the first place because photographs are slippery things and only garner collective meaning when they are of an event or thing that the viewer has an emotional response to and that could be anything from the image is of cross eyed cat or W. Eugene Smith’s portrait of Japanese mother gently cradling her damaged child, which I am not going to insert here because the family asked that it should no longer be published.
It is important to keep hold of the tension between the photograph and the motivation for taking it, both Petrov and Mair might have been interesting interviewees, but by the same token, they might also have been dullards and fools, it isn’t really the point.