Do You Create Work of Lasting Value?

Do You Create Work of Lasting Value?

Is any purpose of creating more important than producing something of lasting value?

The Question

Do you create work that carries great meaning to you?

While the concept of value (and by extension, lasting value) is a universal one, it is not universally observed. What I value may well be different than what you value. For example, I care a great deal for the photos of my family, but it is unlikely you will care about my family photos. The same thing would likely be true in reverse. With the concept of value (especially lasting value) being a moving target, why pursue it? How does one even go about it? 

With the ability to take a seemingly endless number of photos whenever we like, it is common to take what seems like an important photo at the time only to find later that the original importance of that frame has faded. Before you realize, you forget the photo even existed. I cannot be the only one who experiences this. If you were to go through your camera roll from a year ago, I would suspect there are photos you don’t even remember taking. And that’s not so bad, is it? I’m merely arguing that everyone is guilty of pointlessly taking photos at some point in their lives. And while there is nothing wrong with it, I believe many would benefit from putting more effort into photographing with intention. 

Time. Place. Emotion. 

My primary driver as a photographer is the ability to cement a moment in time. As such, I critique every photo I take by the following three qualities: time, place, and emotion. To be truly compelled by a photograph, there must be evidence of each of the three qualities. Sure, there are technically beautiful photographs of well-timed and spectacularly gorgeous scenes. There are thousands upon thousands of these wonderful photographs to see online, but do any of them really mean anything to you? (Maybe? But probably not.)

Not all of my favorite photos are even particularly “good” photos, technically, but I love them nevertheless. Some photos of my parents when they were my age are a bit blurry or damaged or black and white when color would have been preferred. As for my own work, I’ve accidentally under- or over-exposed shots, slightly missed focus, or had just the slightest bit of camera shake, and while the photos will never be good examples of the work I’m capable of, they turned out fine. 

In the present world, where the cameras in phones are plenty good enough for most everyday situations, taking a mundane photo after a mundane photo only to forget about the majority of them has arguably become the norm. In this context, the intent behind each photograph diminishes, and we are left with a pool of photographs and videos that, as a whole, may mean a great deal, but no singular one of them is of any more importance than any other. I put forth great effort to avoid succumbing to that mentality, and I urge fellow photographers to do the same.

In this digital age of photographic gluttony, it has never been more important to question what we are doing and to create works with purpose. Further, I argue that no work is more important than work that moves you as an artist. Simply asking yourself what moves you and intending to take quality photos will not inherently make you a better photographer, but it is a crucial first step. 

Finding Meaning in Other’s Works

While the aforementioned criteria are specific to my own work, I recognize that these qualities can be found in the work of others too. At the time of writing, only about half of the photographs on my walls are my own. The remainder are works from those close to me and from artists whom I consider friends and whose work I want to support. While the majority of these photographs do not meet the criteria I use to judge my own photos, they are still worthwhile – even if the only reason is because they mean a great deal to people who mean a great deal to me. In one circumstance, I acquired photographs of Yosemite that were far and above better than any of the photos I took on my own visit. Even though I did not take these photographs, they still remind me of my time, place, and emotion. 

Contracted Work

To be clear, I do not contract to take photos. The photographs I take are for me and my loved ones. As such, it is easier for me to criticize, because I don’t have to pick up a camera unless I want to. I do, however, know a few professional photographers and a videographer who are of the level that they can make a living from it. I appreciate their skills and understand that not all of the work that pays the bills is necessarily fulfilling work. After all, while I love my job the majority of the time, I do not find every aspect fulfilling. In fact, I’m not sure I’d believe anyone who said otherwise. 

Among my close friends whose work is more of a creative nature than mine, they do studio portraiture, wedding, and videography. For each of them, the pursuit of meaningful work is part of the job. For example, a wedding photographer is in the business of solidifying memories into a curated set of photographs for people to remember their special occasion. So, of course, the work they produce has value that will likely be around for a while. For these individuals, the question becomes one of creating work for themselves that brings them happiness. 

Among professional landscape photographers, travel photographers, and all others whose work does not include people as the subjects, is their work just as fulfilling? I would argue yes: many of my own photographs carry with them the memories of the pursuit to get them. In these cases, memorializing the proverbial journey is in and of itself enough to provide lasting value. 

Further, no matter what the specialty, I understand that there is meaning in technically good photographs that serve as milestones in one’s technical abilities. Perhaps these sorts of photographs are more common for professional photographers, but it certainly applies to everyone. I do, however, believe that photographers should try to do more with their skills than merely produce technically good photos; photographers, like other artists, should strive to create art. 

Conclusion

While everyone chooses their own unique set of values when judging their work, the pursuit of a deeper meaning in one’s work is of great importance. Using a broad definition of lasting value — regardless of photographic interests, skills, or professions — I offer the following advice: ask yourself what photographs mean the most to you, evaluate why they mean so much, and pursue work that carries just as much meaning as the works you identified. By and large, most photographs will not be amazing, but making a conscious effort to create work of lasting value will help ensure that your snaps continue to have meaning in the future.

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7 Comments

The lasting value of photographs for me is how they make me feel.
Not waiting around to have the world tell me I am OK.

Brent Daniel's picture

Thanks James! Great message/reminder!

James Madison's picture

Absolutely. Thanks, Brent!

J.a. Spieringhs's picture

Great piece James.
We live in a time where a lot of people are looking for some recognition. Resulting in a endless stream of images copied after other successfull images. It almost looks as if people are afraid to be different.
I shoot all images for myself. I don’t have the urge to please anybody else. If someone likes my images that is cool, but I only need to please one...
Maybe people should read/watch/listen Neil Gaiman’ “Make Good Art” speech.

James Madison's picture

I'm not familiar with that speech but will look it up for sure.

I don't care how long it lasts.
I need to pay bills.
I don't need fame.