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What Makes It MY Photo?

I often wonder how much credit I can honestly take for producing 'my' photos. After doing this thing called photography for several decades, it remains an open question. I was reminded about it recently when I commented in a DPReview thread about several aspects of a particular photo that I thought should be credited to the efforts of others rather than the photographer. I eventually nagged myself into reviewing some recent photos of my own with the same question in mind, and thought some of you might also find it interesting.

I chose this small sample of five images that were shot in numeric order during one afternoon and the following morning of a pleasure trip back in August, and that I consider reasonably successful (meaning only that I continue to enjoy looking at them). These photos were not planned at all. They just happened during the course of my wandering around ... and that's one of the reasons why I hesitate to claim them as mine with any conviction. If I had preconceived a tableau, gathered its components together, arranged them, lit them, and recorded the result, I wouldn't have trouble considering myself the creator of that photograph. But when I'm just reacting to things encountered in the world as they turn up, ambiguity enters the picture. (GPS location data is embedded in all five shots for those interested. Thank you, A55.)

This first one of the group was an unremarkable shot of sand dunes from a seaside parking lot. Not particularly good weather, nor a particularly good time of day for it. I was aware at the time that I was failing to do justice to the scene, but I still wanted to shoot something. So, we see things that Mother Nature put there, and we see things that people put there: a fence, a sign, a pathway, and lots of footprints. Nature and a bunch of strangers are the ones who created that tableau. What was my contribution? I think I stood on something to get a slightly higher than normal POV, and I chose a composition. Later on, I also goosed the colors and contrast in PP. In other words, my contribution was to operate the camera and Photoshop in a particular way. Question ... Did I create anything here?

Number two was shot about an hour later at a business that buys and resells wine barrels. The light has improved, so there's a bit more drama to the scene. Everything except the light was made through the actions of other people, and those actions were based primarily on pragmatism, not esthetics. In phase one it was, "Make your quota of wine barrels today, the same way we made them yesterday, and the day before." Then, a long time later in phase two it was, "Unload today's haul and put them over there with the others." What did I do here? I framed the shot and pressed the shutter button, then cropped it a bit in PP later. Yay for me.

I don't really remember shooting number three ... but EXIF says it was another hour later. I wonder what I was thinking when I composed it. When I look at the photo now, it seems to have a lot of nothing in it ... yet my eye jumps uncontrollably from the rocks to the distant stuff and back again over and over, sometimes resting for a bit on the dirty-looking water. Is that good? If so, maybe I was in a zen state of consciousness. Or it was just dumb luck. Well, I also sneakily presented it as a filtered B&W conversion so I could exaggerate the contrast. It seems this oddly empty shot that I don't remember taking is the one that's most 'mine' so far.

The next morning I stumbled on a goldmine, number four. I cut my photographic teeth decades ago prowling the infinite streets of greater Los Angeles, finding jumbles of crap like this pretty much every day and visually eating them up. From within this one scene I can pull at least five distinct and different and exciting (to me) compositions. Other people created and 'arranged' every object in the scene; but the great thing here is that almost nothing in it was designed with the intention of being noticed at all. It's just the necessary but mundane, embarassing stuff of human effort that only gets seen accidentally. The few exceptions - clearly put there intentionally by nutty people for the enjoyment of folks like me - add the perfect ironic contrast. Although I am extremely happy to have found and captured this shot, I don't take one iota of credit for its creation.

Number five provides a lot of food for thought. In its original state as a blank wall, that scene would have been similar to number four, though not nearly as interesting. It would have been so ignorable that it might never have been photographed by anyone; but in 2015, a mural artist (Jeff Raum) completely changed it. A photo of that wall now is primarily a photo of that mural, which is the artist's creation. But the other complication introduced here is the human figure, my wife. She becomes a new component that changes the scene and the viewer experience quite a bit. I don't remember if I asked her to stand that way in that spot or if I just shot it as I saw it. Either way, her posture, with her camera hanging unused at her side, appears as someone standing in front of a lonely zoo exhibit of a not particularly interesting animal. It does occur to me that I might very well have taken this shot with her in it - and maybe enjoyed it as much or more - even if there had been nothing but white paint on the wall ... if I had preconceived the tableau instead of stumbling on it as we walked by. The fact is that the mural is really what drew me to do something, so the mural and the muralist deserve most of the credit. I can also thank the coincidence of sunlight casting shadows that enhance the illusion of a three dimensional dinosaur. In the end, I can only take a tiny bit of partial credit.

Text and images 2017-2018 Ray Lemieux