Grant Scott asks this question of someone every week. But he knows what he’s doing and the people who respond are gifted and experienced.
And then there’s me.
It’s a good question, and of course it made me think. I post here every week, so you may have some sense of what I think (or don’t), but there is a difference between the things I want to write about and what I feel about the subject. So there’s no harm in me answering the question and it may help me get my ideas in order.
I think photography has three meanings for me: curiosity, creativity and recall.
Curiosity is my sense of being slightly alien and wanting to make a record of how I see things, if only that I can see later what I saw then. I can take pictures of things I can’t do (like sports) or can’t describe (minimalism) or can’t understand (the rest). I can capture what I saw that was different or attracted me. I may never show anyone else, but I have a picture that can say to me “this is what that thing looked like”. I have a good memory but no mind’s eye, so I can look back but I can’t easily look forward into an imagined picture of the world. So if you asked me if I wanted to go and see some whales or waterfalls, the answer would be yes. I want to see what they look like, I want to learn what it takes to photograph them and I want to see if I can take a picture that captures what I saw and felt.
I confess that same curiosity also led me to find and try all sorts of odd cameras and lenses. I would wonder what an extreme wide angle view might look like and then find out. I wanted to take pictures of what I saw underwater, so had a go at that too. Curiosity is fine, but hoarding is not. But once I realised that, I fixed the issue. I’m still as curious as a cat, but I’m now less laden than my former snail.
The creativity aspect is important to me, as photography is a type of art that I can do. I can’t draw, paint or act and my dancing looks like I’m fending off a bee. But I can take photographs that I like. I can take a picture that is not a straight record, but instead shows what I saw or what could be made of the elements of the scene. The camera is a machine that allows me to be creative: it does the things I could not otherwise do. The nearest I could get to painting a landscape would be to give the trees a coat of emulsion, but a camera allows me to render an image of what I saw or thought.
This brings me to memory, as photography provides me with a history of the people I have met or I am related to. I have pictures of friends, family and many other people that compile a history of people and events. And when I said I had a good memory, I really mean I have a particular memory. I can remember things like trigonometry or the equations of motion from secondary school. I can’t remember what I was wearing last weekend. So I have pictures of my Great Aunt Maud dancing after a couple of sherries and showing her knickers. I have a picture of a nun sat on the fence waiting for the Pope to arrive. I have a picture of my wider family walking in a group under the Esplanade at Brighton, looking like a poster for Reservoir Dogs. These are my memory. I also inherited a large quantity of negatives and some prints from my ancestors. These are my extra memory. Together they are my connection.
This is what photography means to me. What does it mean to you?