This is a thought about music, but one that I think ties into photography beautifully. Bear with me while I explain!
You see, there is something that musicians strive for—at least, the experienced ones, do. When you listen to a song, there is an ideal state of being. This is the state of being that is the performer’s goal for you to reach. Listening to the song should transport you to whatever or wherever the music means. Whether it’s something energetic, something sad, something soothing—when you listen, the music should take you to that place and provide you with whatever relevant mental imagery that relates to that song.
What music should not do is impress you with its technical difficulties. Chopin etudes come to mind here because it happens a lot with pianists who perform Chopin etudes. They’re often called “challenge pieces” or “show off pieces.”
There are two ways to approach a Chopin etude. Let’s take Winter Wind, which is a well-recognized etude. One way to approach Winter Wind is as a “challenge piece.” The pianist isn’t focused on the artistry of the song, but rather on showing off their technical mastery of the piano—and it shows, because as you listen, you find yourself overwhelmed and impressed with how the pianist’s hands absolutely fly over the keys, never missing a note.
There’s no doubt that this is an incredible feat—but it’s absolutely not the point of the song. The point of Winter Wind is not to fill you with awe at the pianist’s abilities, but to fill you with a sense of urgency. To make you forget that you are listening to a pianist, and to instead make you feel cold because that’s what winter winds are. They’re cold, and if you’re not careful, if you don’t run to seek shelter, they can prove to be wild and dangerous things.
That’s the second approach to take to a song. Not showing off your technical mastery, but rather focusing on imbuing it with meanings so that people are swept up not with amazement at your skills, but with the feelings that the song is supposed to give them.
This applies to photography in exactly the same ways. If you’re not sure what I mean, I’ll explain.
If you find yourself looking at a photograph and you’re impressed with the lighting, the contrasts, the crystal-clear focus, or some other technical merit, then that photograph has failed to capture you in the right ways.
True art should sweep you up in emotions and meanings, whatever those emotions and meanings might be. You should be able to forget for a moment that you are looking at a photograph because that photograph’s contents sweep you away into the state of being that the photographer intended for you. I think this is a crucial thing for photographers to think about because it is just so easy for us to want to show off our technical skills. It is a much harder thing to set aside our egos in service to the art and to instead seek to give our audiences something effortless, something that distracts from the fact that they’re looking at photography in an effort to sweep them up in the art.
Now go and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation through your lens.