What draws us to create photographs? What purpose do our photographs serve? Are they mere illustrations or do they become markers along an endlessly winding path? Can photographers possibly know the meaning of their images once they’ve been made and put out into the world?
For a long while I have been struggling with my relationship with photography. Mainly, I have been struggling with meaning. In a time where more photographs are produced in a year than all years before it, I have become paralyzed with the thought that the photographs I make are meaningless, drowning in a sea of images. This leads to the inevitable conclusion: what’s the point? It’s this question that seems impossible to me. I haven’t given up hope completely though, and in my search for an answer I have put my camera down and picked up books that I am hoping will provide me a level of insight into what photography has meant to people, culture and history. I am merely another lost mind in a long line of lost minds. It benefits me to learn from those who have struggled before me, to use their words as directions in my search to find my place.
Photography Changes Everything is a collection of short essays collected from the Smithsonian Institution’s online Photography Initiative. Contributors come from all areas of society and genres/sub-genres of photography. What draws them together is a shared connection with photography and how it has changed everything. What drew me to this 264 page collection was the opportunity to gain perspective from a wide range of others who have spent time considering photographs and their place in our culture. In a bout of amateur self-diagnosis I’ve concluded that much of my struggle comes from my narrow view of my skills and their relevance. It’s easy to get stuck thinking that one’s photographs only appeal to a small group of people who look at the world in the same way you do. I think this is dangerous, as one can never know the hearts and minds of strangers, so producing photographs aimed at a small group of them can only end in frustration. When that small group stops looking, it’s a small step to give up altogether, for no one wants to have conversations with themselves.
If the questions it both raises and attempts to answer are sometimes difficult, the book itself is an easy read. The language is clear and straightforward, even from the contributions made from deep in the recesses of academia. There are many, many photographs to accompany the text, 250 in total, reproduced in high quality. I’ll be bold and state that this is as much a photobook as it is a collection of written essays. Of course the photographs only relate directly to the text and not to one another, but taken as a whole, the collection of photographs can represent how truly wide the influence of photography is. The essays are broken up into six sections, each with about 15 short essays. Every essay’s title begins with Photography Changes ________, the blank being filled in with the subject of the essay. By the end of the book, it all adds up to everything.
I enjoyed the book for a few reasons. First, it’s well made and a pleasure to read. The quality is exactly what you’d expect from Aperture. Second, it quickly communicates not only how varied photography is but how people relate to it. It’s amazing to read the stories of how people came to photography in whatever form they came to it in. Thirdly, I learned not only these personal stories, but a little about the fields each essay was written about. History, gardening, advertising, space exploration, insects, the topics go on, each related to how it was changed by photography. Everything indeed.
The book is by no means a comprehensive historical overview of photography. You will of course pick up small pieces of history here and there, but that’s not the point. By examining the relationship of photography to a wide range of subjects and experiences, we can begin to understand the relationship of photography to each of us, no matter what our own needs and experiences are. This is the reason I wanted to read Photography Changes Everything and I’m glad I did. Highly recommended.