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What Is the Real Meaning of Photography

What Is the Real Meaning of Photography

A surprising omission and sudden need to fill a gap led me to an important revelation.

What is a photograph? Is it a collection of ones and zeros that comprise a digital image? Is it a reaction of chemicals that settle to reveal an artist’s vision through light and shadow? Or, is it simply a product? A way to make money by monetizing the needs of the market.

Last week I had a once in a lifetime opportunity. A lifelong dream came true, one which I never really expected to be fulfilled. It took place in a studio, but, for once, was not related to photography. Well, at least not in the way one would expect given my profession.

For any of you who may read my column on a regular basis, or for any stranger who speaks to me for more than five minutes on a street corner, it will come as no surprise that my first love is cinema. My career as a commercial photographer and director in fact was born out of an early career as a screenwriter and filmmaker.

When I was just beginning my trade, my first step was to try and learn as much as I possibly could from the legendary filmmakers that came before me. Billy Wilder, Preston Sturgess, John Alton, Buster Keaton, William Wyler... the list goes on. Titans of Hollywood’s Golden Age that set the template for a burgeoning industry and would establish the standards for quality in cinema for decades to come.

Fortunately, I live in a time that also provides one of the greatest single resources a growing filmmaker could have, Turner Classic Movies. For those outside the United States without access to our cable channels, TCM is basically 24 hours of non-stop, uncut, great movies from throughout Hollywood history. Each film is usually accompanied by a three minute intro and one or two minute outro from a TCM host, giving you the backstory of the movie and a bit of historical context. Being both a filmmaker and a history buff, TCM is, for all intents and purposes, my happy place.

So why am I telling you all this? Well, last week, I was flown down to Atlanta to be interviewed for a segment on TCM that will air as part of the 25th anniversary celebration in April. How this all came about is a bit of a whirlwind. The station was soliciting regular people to submit videos to dedicate films to people in their lives that have meant the most to them. I created a video dedication to my mother. I had no real expectation that I would be selected, but I saw the heartfelt video as a way to tell my mother how much our time together meant to me, without actually directly telling her how much she meant to me. Funny the lengths we go to sometimes not to express our feelings directly. But that’s a topic for another essay.

Low and behold, my submission was accepted, and I suddenly found myself being whisked away in a limo and on my way to Turner Studios which turned out to be three of the most memorable days of my life.

But, just before I would board that plane, I realized I had a problem. As the segment was being dedicated to my mother, the station logically requested I send them a photo of my mother and I together. Easy enough, right? Well, as I suddenly began to realize while I sifted through the literal millions of images in my collection, in my well over four decades on this Earth, there exist only one (1) picture of my mother and I together.

How is that possible, you may be asking. I was asking the same question. True, my mother’s skill and dedication when comes to avoiding cameras is something of an urban legend, but how on Earth did this oversight go so long without being addressed?  

There were pictures of the entire family. There were plenty of pictures that I had taken of my mother when she couldn’t move fast enough to avoid me taking them. But the only picture that existed of just the two of us together was an impromptu arms-length selfie taken on a trip to Alaska with random tourists in the background teetering all too closely to the edge of a rather frigid looking body of water.

Immensity of the moment at hand, I went to my mother and begged her to finally sit for a portrait with me. There would never be a better moment. After all, it was likely to air on TV. I’m sure she would want it to be a better image the lone vacation photo in existence. Truth be told, our Alaska photo isn’t all that bad, but I leaned hard on the new photo angle seeing it as my best shot to get her to say yes.

Like a big name celebrity showing up to an editorial shoot where you get five minutes that becomes three and the subject gets full right of refusal, I hurriedly setup my Fuji XT3 with a 50mm f2 opened all the way. I propped up my tripod, set the self timer, and jumped in front alongside my mother and hoped for the best.

I’m very happy with the photos. But, more importantly, I’ve very happy that I now have a record of both the moment as well as this person that has meant so much to me in my life. After all, if she hadn’t taught me to take chances, I never would have been on TCM in the first place. Probably never would have become a photographer. And may very well find myself living a very different life.

So, back to the original question. What is a photograph? Well, it’s a memory. It’s a moment in time that only you will have experienced. It’s a chance to capture the essence of a life on film that will live on long after each of us leave this Earth.

I’m happy that not only will I now have more options to show on television, but that my children, grandchildren, and great-great-great grandchildren will have a record of this special woman who once occupied this land and her son who loved her.

It’s a reminder that, even when we are working professionally, our jobs are more than just creating interesting ways to combine ones and zeros to make an image.  Our jobs are to provide memories that will last for years to come.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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It's shocking how few photographers take pictures of their loved ones!

I personally struggle with this a lot. Its hard taking pictures of people very close to you.

Thank you for this reminder to take time (and pictures) with the ones you love most.

this is one of the best articles i read here. Photography is not about the perfect lighting, lenses ot $10.000 cameras. Its about meaning.. an emotional connection. So many times i hear these people talking about chromatic aberrations, color cast hightlight, shadows and all that crap but I know how i feel when i see a slightly blurred photo of my 110 year great grand mother. People who talk like this are just show offs... look at me i am talking technical.. Great article

great article!