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Photography and the art of history ... a story with no photos:

Published September 12th, 2012

Though I am totally aware that few people will see this I will put it down anyway.

Earlier on I asked, why am I a photographer? Rather why do we take photos? Well, the why of why we take photos falls into several categories. I don’t even know what those categories are truth be known. I suppose I can sit down and make a matrix, but then it might be different from what you come up with, so I will leave that to people with more brains.

I wanted to address a certain style of photography that some of us deem unworthy. We have many names for this type of photography, “crap snapshots of city streets” or “failed street photography” comes to mind.

Oh, we want to call ourselves artists, professionals, super advanced enthusiast … that list goes on and on. BUT whatever we decide to call ourselves, we are one thing, a thing that we all share, from amateur to seasoned super famous professional to anal workaholic. We are secondly historians.

In the early days of photography, few people had a camera and could even afford one, it was an exacting science/art and just like today expensive. Look at Matthew Brady for instance. Sure he took photos during the American Civil War and most of the shots are really kind of boring don’t you think?

Oh!!! Not so boring? Well, why is that? What makes those old photographs so valuable? So interesting? Even today we can take way better photos, so by today’s standards they are really crappy, full of grain and movement that the camera could not freeze. But why do we look at them? Why do we like them? As photographers, we know that sometimes getting “the shot” requires an enormous amount of effort, and Brady put in a lot of effort.

Why are some of the snapshots of Hitler’s General staff so interesting, especially the color ones? Some of those photographers did not put in much effort, they just snapped when they could.

How long does this list have to be? We already know the answer. Not because that they were difficult to take, but they are an actual frozen moment in time, actual history.

We do this all the time and yet we toss our photos out as crappy blah shots of a street. Stop doing that, no, I don’t mean stop taking photos, I mean stop tossing them out, look at each one carefully, crop and process as needed to make it a realistic photo and look at it as a piece of history. It could be of your town, or some other town, your family or Uncle Bill leaning on his new car.*

20, 30, 40, 50 + years from now those will be valuable photos to someone in your family, or even to your city. Of course if it is out of focus or a shot of a piece of tree bark or a flower, by all means toss those. Trees and flowers will be around for a long time and there are surely some scientists out there who already have shot of said tree bark or said flower.

So will your city’s main street be the same in 4 years that it is today? Maybe, but it will change, as change surely comes as the sunrises. Where I live in Bila Tserkov, Ukraine, I have watched an area very close to me make radical changes in less then three years. I have taken the time, sometimes too late, to photograph our local bazaar, all of the little stalls and carts, are being replaced by buildings. The rent is going to be higher, some of the venders can’t afford to set up shop in an expensive building, and if they do they will have to raise the prices to pay the new overhead. It will not and is not the same, but I still go in and take photos as it is changing, and when people get upset I tell them; “Things are changing, you and I have seen it in a very short amount of time, someday YOU won’t be here and who will remember the old bazaar? Who will be able to look back and see how it was? I will, because I have photos, do you? Wouldn’t you want to be a part of history as I record it?”

Well, Ukrainians are a little hard headed, they simply don’t want their picture taken, and I damn sure am not going to pay them. The photos are not going to the internet, but they will go into a large printed book after I have collected enough and I will just donate the book to the local library. It will be printed and it will be available for future generations to look back on.

Look, you don’t have to do the same thing, but wouldn’t it be cool if we all made an effort to somehow make our historical photos available to the general public. Not everyone has a computer, but every city has a library (usually) or a civic center (maybe) and for sure a central government office, a local museum maybe? Someplace for something to be made available for the future.

Also, it seems everyone has a camera with them, usually on their cell phone, it is not like photos are scarce, but you know that those Facebook accounts will get neglected and lost in the cloud as a person dies and the account lies dormant and unknown. Many of those cell phone photos will never see the light of day in print or even to a computer and they will be deleted to make room for more.

I think as photographers we have some obligation to somewhere store a bit of history in our archives, even if that street looks blah to you, tomorrow it will be a cool old photo for someone else.

*Remember Uncle Bill’s car? How proud he was of it? All gleaming and shiny like his smile when he leaned against it? Does that car have a story to tell 15 years later when it lies rusting in a junk yard, discarded and wrecked. Every car has a story … EVERY CAR. Every car was one pristine off the showroom floor, it made someone happy, they took care of it, photographed it, traveled in it, and then somewhere down the line they wrecked it, neglected it, broke it or traded it in for another new car and the old used car plodded along into it’s unknown and uncertain future…every car had a story.

No, my friends, no photos today.

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