Vision Part 4-Why do we photograph?

July 31, 2013 ·

Alain Briot

Many men go fishing all of their lives
without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
Henry David Thoreau 

1 – Introduction: why is this question important ? 

Asking ourselves why we photograph may seem a benign question whose answer is self evident. However, while it appears to be simple question, for many photographers answering it is anything but simple.   It is a difficult question because it asks for our personal reasons for taking photographs.  As such, there is no single answer.  Instead, the answer –the reason why– is potentially different for all of us.   It also asks us to explain why we do something that, for many of us, is impulsive, almost instinctive at times.  It is also something that we have never thought of explaining. 

This is why I selected the quote at the start of this essay.  For a fisherman to explain why they fish can be just as difficult as for a photographer to explain why they photograph.  At first the answer seems obvious: we fish because we like to fish and we photograph because we like to photograph.  But upon examination this answer, while perfectly acceptable, may not be satisfying.  It may not because, in the long run, it becomes clear that other reasons are involved, reasons that we may never have considered, reasons that may be more important than liking fishing, photography or some other activity.  It is these unknown reasons that can be surprising and at times disturbing.

Our answers may also be different according to the subjects we photograph. For example, the reason why most of us take family photographs is to have visual memories of loved ones and family events.  However, the reason why we photograph wild animals or wilderness areas is totally different and may be more challenging to explain.

Finally, our reasons may change over time.  The reason why we photograph animals, landscapes or some other subject may not be the same today that it was 10 or more years ago.  As we change our motivation changes.  Because this often happens slowly and sort of sneaks up on you, keeping track of this change and being aware of it can be challenging. 

2 – Looking deeper

The question ‘why do we photograph?’ brings up an interesting conundrum that goes something like this: why do we need to provide a reason for creating visual representations?  After all, photography is a non verbal medium, a medium chosen by many of us for this very reason.  If we wanted to explain things with words we would have become writers!  So why do we have to answer this question?

The reason why is just as interesting: because knowing why we photograph is going to help us create better photographs.  This is because knowing the reason why we photograph also means knowing what we are after: what we are looking for, what our motivation is, what drives us.  In a way the conundrum is accurate: we don’t need to write down the answer or even explain it to others.  We are not writers nor do we need to become writers. However, we do need to know, even if it is just for ourselves, why we photograph in order to create better photographs.

Of course you could skirt the issue entirely and give an answer similar to George Mallory’s who when asked “Why did you climb Mt Everest?” answered “Because it is there.”  You could also justify not answering by quoting Voltaire who said ‘He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.’ 

Doing so is fine if you so choose.  However if you do this you will be missing the point of this exercise which is to provide an opportunity to reflect upon your motivations for doing photography.  The rationale behind this approach being that understanding your motives can help you improve your photography.

To this end, and to provide an example of facing the question rather than skirting it, in the next section I reflect upon my own motivation for doing photography.

Joshua Tree Sunrise Impressionist
Color, form and light combine to create an impressionist rendering 
of this sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park

3 – Why I photograph

This essay would not be complete or fair if I did not explain why I photograph, if I did not give you my personal reasons for doing photography.  After all this subject is best addressed by giving you examples, and the example I know best is my own. 

The answers below are taken from Section 7 in which I give an exhaustive list of reasons.  From that list I selected the reasons that provide the most accurate answers in regards to my personal work.   

In the following two sections, sections 4 and 5, I expand on these reasons by talking about why I work with photography rather than with painting and why I photograph landscapes rather than other subjects.  Finally, in Section 6, I discuss the painters and photographers who were influential in shaping my approach to art and to photography.

I photograph:

– For aesthetic reasons because representing beauty inspires me 

– To create images that have not been created before

– Because I find creating my own photographs more satisfying than looking at the photographs created by other photographers.

– To express my emotional response to a subject or location

– Because I can say things with photographs that I cannot say in any other way

– To see how things look when they are immobile, when time and movement are stopped

– To explore the aesthetic possibilities offered by form

– To explore the aesthetic possibilities offered by color

– To explore the aesthetic possibilities offered by natural light

– Because being an artist and creating art is a way of life, not just something I hang on my walls

Paris Street photography example 

4 – Why photography rather than painting?

I am particularly attracted to photographic representation because photographs are a contemporary form of representation, one that uses the latest image creation technologies available. For this reason creating photographs, to me, feel ‘comfortable’ when it comes to representing my experience of the world.

I first studied painting and drawing at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris, France.  After the Beaux Arts I studied  photography at the American Center, also in Paris.  I decided to continue working with photography instead of painting because I found photography to be contemporary as a medium.  For me photography fit into today’s world better than painting.  I liked the level of detail offered by photography, the immediacy offered by the medium and the cutting edge aspect of photographic technology.  At the time I had no idea that digital photography would become a reality. However, in retrospect my decision was correct because digital photography has opened creative possibilities that rival or even exceed those offered by painting and drawing.

I find it helpful to work with a medium that imposes a certain ‘rigor’ in its approach and that requires a firm technical foundation. Painting was too loose for me.  Often I worked too fast and I was not able to achieve the proper technical rigor required to create a satisfying painting.  Photography gives me this rigor and allows me to create images that are more satisfying.  What is interesting is that now that I acquired this rigorous approach I may be able to apply it to painting to create satisfying paintings and complete the circle.

5 – Why landscapes and not other subjects?

I have not always photographed landscapes. When I started I did street photography. At first I photographed people in Paris: in public places, in the subway, etc. Later I photographed people while travelling throughout Europe.  I also did a series of photographs about Circus performers in Paris.  All these projects were exhibited in Paris in the context of personal shows. 

It was only later on, during a six month trip to the Southwestern United States, that I became interested in Landscape Photography.  I was fascinated by the forms and colors of the Western landscape and this became one of the emphasis of my work.  I also started to work with 4×5 during that trip, using a 4×5 Arca Swiss monorail view camera.  I only used two lenses: a 90 mm and a 210 mm, both Rodenstock. Prior to that trip I had worked almost exclusively with 35mm, using Olympus and Leica cameras.  I photographed only with Polaroid film during my Southwest trip because I wanted to see my photographs in the field instead of waiting for them to be developed.  Polaroid was the ‘digital version’ of film back then because It allowed me to see the images I captured instantly. 

Landscape photography offered a focus on form, composition, color, personal reflection and contemplation  that street photography did not offer.  Photographing people in the street the way I did had to be done fast to be done well. This meant photographing quickly, sight-unseen and often ‘on the run.’  Landscapes on the other hand required study and observation to be done well. The photographs had to be taken slowly, in small quantities, and only after a deliberate study and a careful selection of the scene, the lens, the film and the other variables that were part of creating the final photograph. 

Over time I found that I preferred this slower approach and that it worked better for me. It may be because on some level I like to reflect on things.  Some say I have a philosophical side to my personality.  I wont’ object to that. Having completed graduate studies in rhetoric and philosophy supports this point.  

6 – My influences

I am primarily influenced by the work of painters.  My taste in painting is very wide, from the Impressionists to the Cubists with every art movement before, after and in between.  However, while I like all art movements, I do favor those that focus on form and color.  For color my preferences are for Impressionism, Fauvism and Post Impressionism.  Monet and Cezanne are two of the most important artists in that regards and both represent a powerful influence in my work.  In regards to form, Cubism and Surrealism are my favorites.  Dali and Picasso are my two major influences when it comes to form.

Growing up in France had an influence on my work and on the way I see things from a visual art point of view and this for two reasons.  First, because my studies at the Beaux Arts provided me with an art education that I continue to use to this day.  It is important to note that at the Beaux Arts my formation was artistic first and technical second, which is the inverse of most photographer’s education.  I studied not only painting and drawing but also the foundations of art and the history of art.  Today I use everything I learned at the Beaux Arts both in my work and my teaching.

Second, because of the quantity and the diversity of art present in Paris.  Art is part of French culture. In France art is not only plentiful it is also easily accessible.  In Paris the architecture is magnificent, there are sculptures in the streets, museum entrance fees are low and there are city-wide art events organized throughout the year, such asLe Mois de la Photo, theMonth of Photographyduring which hundreds of different venues, from Museums to coffee shops, exhibit photographs.  One cannot avoid being affected by art when living and working in Paris.

Surprise Pool, Yellowstone National Park, 1983
Arca Swiss 4×5, Rodenstock 90mm, Polaroid Type 52

This leads me to the subject of my first experiences seeing original fine art photographs.  My first experience seeing original fine art prints took place during theMois de la Photographiein Paris. I remember walking into the Palais de Tokyo and being face to face with hundreds of images by Duane Michals.  I have seen many world class original prints since, but to this day those remain memorable.  I did not know at the time that you could do what Michaels did with photography.  I also did not know it could be done with equipment that was relatively simple and affordable.  I was also impressed by the work of Richard Avedon.  Both were black and white photographers, and my interest in their photography can be explained by the fact that at the time my work was primarily black and white.

I was also impressed by the work of Ansel Adams. His books became available in France around the time I started being interested in photography.  I remember walking into a bookstore that sold only photography books, opening a copy ofYosemite and the Range of Light, and experiencing both shock and disbelief at the quality of the images, both from a compositional and a printing perspective.  Until I opened this book I did not know such tonality control could be achieved with photography.  The combination of perfectly controlled highlights with details in the brightest areas, of shadows featuring just enough visible detail to make them feel like shadows while revealing enough information to give you a sense of place, and of an incredibly wide range of greys mesmerized me.  Until then I was more focused on people than on landscapes and this may have been the one event that started my change of mind.

7 – Switching to color

I’m not sure exactly when the shift to color took place because it was gradual rather than sudden.  I had seen the work of Ernst Haas in Paris, but while I like some of the things he was doing with color – -his use of stark color contrast for example – – I found his use of color to be unrefined for my taste.  I wanted to see a larger color palette together with more variations of color, so his work failed to motivate me to become involved with color printing. 

I did try Cibachrome printing in my home lab, using a kit produced by Ilford at the time.  I was able to make technically correct prints but the lack of control over color, and to a large extent over contrast and density as well, made the process more mechanical than artistic.  I wanted far more control than that.  Coming from a painting background, even black and white printing, which offered far more control than color printing at the time, was creatively limiting.  I wanted more creative control over the entire image making process, something that I would find only after digital photography came about. Incidentally, I like digital because of the extreme level of control it gives me over the entire image creation process.

I also saw the work of David Muench in Paris, but Muench’s work fascinated me essentially because of his use of extreme wide angles, large format cameras and locations I had never seen before. 

The one photographer that opened my eyes to the creative possibilities offered by color photography was Joel Meyerowitz.  His book,Cape Light,was a revelation.  The light was fantastic. The compositions were phenomenal.  The use of a large format camera was riveting. But above all, it was his use of color that fascinated me.  His color palette was rich without being over saturated or overly contrasty.  His printing was on par with Adams, while being in color, something I had never seen before.  Meyerowitz worked with tungsten color negative film which he developed for a daylight color balance.  This was part of the reason for the quality of his color work, the other reason being his vision and skills.  Unfortunately, I did not have the means of processing tungsten color negative film for daylight color balance myself, nor did I know a lab that could do that for me. But the seed had been planted and from then on my eyes were open to the possibilities offered by color photography.

The other color photographer who influenced me on a level comparable to Meyerowitz was Cole Weston.  I remember seeing a street scene taken during the transition from dusk to night, scene in which the neon and tungsten light of the street signs combined with the natural light of sunset.  The combination of these different types of light in a single scene, with each light of equal brightness, not one being over or under exposed, was fascinating both from a technical and an artistic point of view.  This work opened my eyes not just to the possibilities offered by color photography, since that had been achieved by seeing Meyerowitz’ work, but also to the possibility of using several different types of light, each of a different color, in the same photograph.  Here was something that could not be done with black and white because it was purely a color phenomena.  Take a black and white photograph of the same scene and a large part of the interest is gone because all the different light sources are the same shade of grey.

Sandstone 1
This image is about Form, color and light, working together 
to create a dynamic image of a sandstone formation in Arizona.

8 – Today

My training as a  painter and my experience living in Paris then moving to the Southwestern United States deeply influenced my work.  Today, in my photography, I focus on form and color with the goal of creating believable rather than realistic images.  My point of departure is that art is by definition a modification, an alteration and a departure from reality.  Art is an interpretation of reality, not a duplication or a documentation of reality.  To this end the colors use in my photographs are modified to fit specific color harmonies as well as specific color palettes.  Unwanted elements are routinely removed because if I was painting a specific scene I would not include them. Therefore if the camera captures such unwanted elements I have to remove them.  

Another important aspect of my work is that I use digital to do what I could not do with film, not just to do what could do with film better and more reliably.  Things I do in my work that could not be done with chemical photography include warping, reformatting, distorting, cloning and all sorts of other ‘unspeakable’ things, as I like to call them.  If you visit thepricespage on my website you will see that I have a warranty according to which, if a client happens to purchase one of my pieces and that piece happens tonotbe manipulated, I will  give them a 100% refund.  I don’t take much of a chance since all my fine art photographs are departures from reality and therefore different from the images captured by the camera.  My goal in modifying the image captured by the camera is to express my emotional response to the scene.  If I did not modify the image I would be showing what the camera captured, not what I saw and felt.

9 – Why do you photograph?

This is why I photograph.  But why do you photograph?  Why do you create art?  Answering this question will go a long ways towards defining your vision for your work.  Below is a list of possible answers.  As you read through this list keep in mind that while thislist is long it is also incomplete because the number of reasons why we photograph is virtually endless.

– Because it is fun

– Because it makes you happy

– Because it involves adventure and exploration

– To express emotions and feeling

– To express beliefs and ideas

– To have an effect on the viewer

– To share important subjects, locations and ideas with your audience

– To demonstrate technical expertise

– To create images that are aesthetically pleasing to your audience

– To create images that are shocking to your audience

– To depict the beauty of nature

– To show locations or subjects that nobody has photographed before

– To innovate and break the rules

– To explore fundamental elements of art such as lines, shapes, space, color

– To tell stories

– For aesthetic reasons because beauty is your main focus.

– Because creating art brings you joy and peace that you cannot experience any other way

– Because creating art and taking photographs is a compulsion

– Because creating art and taking photographs makes you feel free

– Because creating art allows you to experience the freedom you do not find in other aspects of your life

– Because art allows you to escape the reality of everyday life

– Because of what you learn about yourself when you create art

– To create images that have not been created before

– To create work comparable to the work of photographers you admire

– Because you find creating your own photographs more satisfying than looking at the photographs created by other photographers.

– To share memories,

– To build bridges between yourself and the rest of humanity by sharing your experiences

– To record experiences

– To share your experiences with others

– To create connections by sharing your images with others

– Because you can say things with photographs that you cannot say in any other way

– To express emotions

– To create things that are fun

– To bring things together and remedy fragmentation

– To meet people you could not meet if it wasn’t for the connections art creates

– To travel to places you want to see and photograph

– To see subjects and things you want to photograph

– To see how things, people, subjects, etc. look in photographs

– To freeze time

– To see how things look when they are immobile, when time and movement stop

– To explore form

– To explore color

– To express yourself

– To see how things look in photographs

– Because being an artist and creating art is a way of life, not just something you hang on your wall

– Feel free to continue this list by adding your personal reasons

Sandstone 2
This image is from the same location asSandstone 1.  While drama is the main theme,
form is still prevalent and used to bring a visual relationship between the clouds and the sandstone formation.

10 – Skill enhancement exercises

A – Explain why you photograph

Working from the list above, select one or several reasons that best describe why you photograph. If none of the reasons above describe your reasons accurately, feel free to add additional reasons or modify the ones above as needed.

B –Questions to help you find out why you photograph

Using the list above may be helpful, but again it may not.  In that case answering the following questions may help you find out why you photograph: 

– What are you trying to convey through your photography?

– What creative process do you follow, from the beginning of piece to its completion?

– What inspires you to take photographs or create art?

– Which photographers and artists inspire and influence you?

– Which subjects inspire you?

– What are your plans for future work?

C – Who influenced you?

List the art movements, the photographers and the artists that influenced you.  You can list a single movement, artist or photographer, or several movements, artists and photographers depending on your personal situation. You can also list artists working in any medium because art is not medium specific.

11 – Conclusion

I find writing a conclusion to this essay challenging.  This is because I feel it is not yet time to draw conclusions.   Rather it is time to continue this exploration of vision by looking at more examples and at other aspects of the subject.  So, rather than conclude I will point out that future essays in this series will focus on Color, Form, Subject Matter, Projects as well as on other aspects of photography that affect vision and style.  Therefore, for the time being this series isA Suivre… In the meantime you can read my previous essays published on luminous-landscape here.

12 – About the photographs featured in Alain’s essays

The photographs featured here were modified to reflect Alain’s artistic vision. To this end, rather than present the raw images captured by the camera, Alain altered the colors, contrast, forms, contents, format, dynamic range and other aspects of each image.  Depending on the image items may have been removed or added or several photographs may have been collaged together.  As a result the images you see here should not be construed as something that truly exists. They are intended to be seen as a representation of Alain’s creativity, artistic intent and desire to create his unique world rather than document the world we all have access to. 

13 – About Alain Briot

I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing.  I am the author of  Mastering Landscape Photography,  Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and  Marketing Fine Art Photography.  All 3 books are available in eBook format on my website at this link:

You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website at .  You will receive 40 free eBooks immediately after subscribing.

I welcome your comments on this essay as well as on my other essays. You can reach me directly by emailing me at

Alain Briot
July, 2013 


Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, raw conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. Alain is the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available from Alain’s website as well as from most bookstores. You can find more information about Alain's work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to Alain’s Free Monthly Newsletter on his website. You will receive over 40 essays in PDF format, including chapters from Alain’s books, when you subscribe.

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