A photo is taken in an instant, snapped as you perceive the moment, recording indefinitely the raw values encoded from the sensor to the memory card. How then can a photo be a living entity?
A photo begins with an idea. You perceive something in your mind's eye, envision it as it might be, and then let that seed grow and flourish from the original idea in to something more, something greater. That nurturing stage can be quite involved — "The Usual Suspects" by David Yarrow is a stunning (and complex) piece of story telling that must have taken some considerable arranging. It's a real bar, real people, and, err yes, a real wolf!
Nurturing can also be quite brief. Gary Winogrand was renowned for the huge volumes of images he shot, a camera constantly at his side. In fact, after his death he purportedly left 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls of developed film, and 3,000 rolls made in to contact sheets. For someone so prolific, I'm fairly sure that there wasn't a great deal of time spent developing his ideas for individual photos.
Nurturing often sits somewhere in between the brief and extended examples highlighted above and this is something most of us can identify with. I have to admit I'm quite a fan of Edward Weston's Pepper Number 30. It is a masterclass of form, lighting, and printing. As the name suggests, it wasn't the first pepper image Weston captured. He clearly found the shape and sheen appealing, which, along with lighting and backdrop, made for his setup. At which point he produced a continual stream of shots, varying the peppers he used up to Pepper 37. Kim Weston outlines (NSFW) how Pepper Number 30 was shot at f/240 for 4-6 hours. In my homage to Weston, I took over 20 images to get to my favorite but clearly I need a better supply of peppers amongst other things!
Think about one of your images that you've developed from concept to final product. It might be a star trail that required the scouting of a coastal location before waiting for the right combination of weather and night sky. This might have necessitated several fruitless night starts before everything came together for the three hundred or so shots that were subsequently stacked in post-production.
Or maybe it was a highly abstract street shot that combined the angular elements, Salgado style, of a subway entrance in deep shadow just awaiting a lone figure to stray into the scene. The combination of low sun, clear skies, and a quiet street meaning visit after visit.
I believe photographs become living entities, that transcend the individual pixels they are compose of. They reflect the ideas infused in them by the whole production team, from concept, to shoot, to post-production, representing hours of work, and potentially multiple images. They grow from the birth of the original concept, through a childhood of development where they become self-aware of their own identity before maturity takes hold, and allows their full purpose to be exposed for all to see.
Expanding this idea of concept-to-product, the final output doesn't have to be an image, but could include a series of images — a portfolio. It's the portfolio that we most often see turned in to a photobook, such as Nick Turpin's "On the Night Bus" which saw him spend two years, in all weathers, sniping shots of people on buses from the urban jungle of Elephant and Castle in London. Conceptually the images are repeated in new and different ways throughout the book, becoming almost hypnotic in the way that they metamorphose in refreshing and unending variations. Like a colorful serpent writhing from page to page as it seethes in anger, the images trying to escape the leaves of the book, to free themselves from the constrictions of a paper-flat world.
Images — photographs — deserve far more on a number of levels. Firstly, they deserve more at the stage of conception. You may not be planning months ahead for your next conceptual shoot involving a large support crew, but every photo deserves to born for a purpose, to be created with intent. Every time you press the shutter button, do so knowing that there is a reason for capturing the next image. Secondly, let it have the longevity to grow beyond infantile youth. Let its purpose, message, and core values live beyond it's immediate future. It deserves to have a future to grow in to, one that allows it to communicate with others and convey it's message. Finally, it deserves to live beyond the constrictions of a short-lived social media future, where its two minute blaze of glory then sees it consigned to a facial recognition bot before sitting on your timeline. It's so much better to have a fully rounded, long lived life, than to go out in a blaze of glory. Let it escape the bonds of your hard disk, from its digital imprisonment, to a long lasting analogue future.
Breathe life into your photos, cherish and nurture them, let them grow in to the artworks they deserve to be. In short, display your art. Let them live on in physical form. I asked this question recently to see if readers had printed and displayed their work. Of the 500 votes, encouragingly only 11% said they didn't display their own work. Of the remainder, a whopping 56% displayed artistic work, with family portraits trailing in second place at 22%. That's a great result and readers posted examples of how their work is displayed.
Printing is one step in the right direction, but you don't have to go far to find wallets of photos that don't see the light of day. So, in addition to printing your images, you need to make the conscious effort to display them. Like many, I go through the process of putting together an annual portfolio which can be a painful process. I normally start out with around one hundred images and then have to whittle them down to my top 24 before meticulously printing them as a photobook. However, I don't then do the final stage — displaying them. I need to breathe new life in to these 24 images and let them find a place on my walls. I can't show them all, but some should be permanent fixtures, whilst others should rotate through display allowing them to find a home but also to provide a varied backdrop to where I live.
So actually, maybe it's not only the photo itself that is the living entity, but also the space it inhabits — the display space itself. Let your images live on and, in so doing, create a dynamic display in your home.