Photography is unique among the arts in the way it depends on the world for its very existence. In order for there to be a photograph, something had to be present in front of the sensor/film at the time that it was exposed. While this can be seen as a limitation, it is more properly seen as a kind of discipline. A photographer needs to become an acute observer of the world and, at the same time, develop the technical skills to act quickly, when necessary, to capture the often brief moment when pre-visualization and reality coincide.
In this necessary combination of elements lies the source of the power of photographs.
Over the past several months, I have been reading writings by Jacques Rancière, who has many valuable insights into the question of aesthetics. While I don’t want to go into his entire outlook here, he has this to say about photography:
“Photography was not established as an art on the grounds of its technological nature. … [it] did not become an art by imitating the mannerisms of art. … it is rather [through] the appropriation of the commonplace.” (The politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. Trans. with an intro. by Gabriel Rockhill. [London: Continuum, 2004], p. 33.)
From this, we can understand that it is the world in its entirety that presents itself as subject matter for the photographer. And it is the proper source of our subject matter, which we make use of to elaborate and express our vision. Whether we wander the world in search of moments or prepare elaborate sets in a studio, the thought behind and before pressing the shutter is what is important and what allows us to make an image that embodies an idea.