Mannequins, abandoned places, building exteriors, and architectural details. Those were the overwhelming subjects of photographs submitted by photographers for consideration in a judged book project by LensWork publishing recently. I listen to a lot of podcasts when traveling by car and the LensWork podcast is a favorite of mine. It's a short podcast, usually less than 15 minutes, but it digs deep into the art and philosophy of photography. A recent podcast title, Mannequins and Abandonded Places, caught my attention. It turned out to be a great episode and it left me with a lot to ponder.
Brooks Jensen proposed that based on the emphasis on mannequins over real people and buildings over those who inhabit them that perhaps photographers are a very shy group of people. I can say for myself that I am very introverted and connecting with people is difficult for me. Asking a stranger for permission to photograph them is a daunting challenge. Perhaps that is true for a lot of people. Do photographers really take pictures of mannequins and buildings because those are "safe" subjects that require no interaction or permission (generally speaking?)
I have to admit that I photograph the occasional mannequin. The ones lacking heads are a particular curiosity. I was pretty sure I did it because they strike me as odd. Is there a deeper reason rooted in my introverted personality? That may well be. What about abandoned places and buildings? Why do I (or we as photographers) place so much emphasis on such things? In my mind I'd say it is mainly a fascination with interesting details in the things people build. Urban landscapes are in a lot of ways more interesting than nature to me. I'm a city boy at heart I guess. Small towns are a common subject for me too though. I find them peaceful and a great way to get away from the crowded city without completely leaving civilization. I like the idea of documenting things that may not be around much longer with all the urban sprawl in the area I live. In all honesty though the biggest reason is probably because there are less people around in the small towns. There's that introverted thing again. Shyness, if you will.
That podcast really got to me on multiple levels. What and why do I photograph the things I do? I'm really pondering the why part. Not to say there is anything wrong with snapping pictures "just because." For me, photography is an outlet, a therapy, an escape, a way of communicating, celebrating, remembering. But what am I trying to say? Are a lot of photographers trying to say the same thing? Or is there a message at all? Are we just a herd of shy people seeking refuge behind a camera and hunting the easy prey?
I've been challenging myself to look deeper when I photograph things lately. I try to avoid the easy route. Don't snap away at everything that looks cool. Stop, think, look beyond what is obvious. What is there in the way of light, shadow, feeling, emotion? Consider more than just what is tangibly there. What does it say? How does it make me feel right there in that moment? The digital age is wonderful but it can make us snap happy. There is no extra cost whether we take 5 or 500 photos these days. That can lead to watered down photos, no different than anyone else's images. Unoriginal, uninspiring, unfulfilling.
I don't think every photo or even most of them necessarily have to involve people in some manner. There is nothing wrong with photographing inanimate objects, whether they be abandoned buildings, the facades of urban landscapes, or even mannequins. Still, I don't like the thought that I'm missing out on powerful and meaningful photos for fear of interacting and connecting with someone. I need to work on that. I know that I generally like to photograph certain things - the what. I also know the how - the technical part. The why and, maybe, the who (myself and my human subjects)...those are the more difficult things to grapple in my mind. I want there to be a voice in my photography. Sometimes though, I'm at a loss for words.
As if to place an exclamation point on the podcast that shook up my thoughts on photography, the next podcast in my playlist began with an introduction of a guest photographer. What does he shoot? Abandoned places. Probably some mannequins thrown in for good measure I suspect. Maybe the majority of photographers really are a group of herd minded shy folks.