In the history of photography there was a time when gear became portable, not in the sense of the post-battlefield mobility of Matthew Brady and his wagon-built darkroom for preparing and finishing his glass plates, but in the sense of the Kodak “Brownie” box camera with a long spool of film in the early 1900s or the cassettes for 35mm film and the small cameras that went with that innovation. The bigger, more time-consuming, and financially significant equipment of those early times meant that most pictures were commissioned for big events of civic or family or company life. When newspapers and other rapidly published periodicals began to use photographs then news stories became suitable subjects to compose and capture. As costs continued to go down and gear came into the hands of more and more people, the marketing departments pressing for more consumption of film and photo printing supplies and services began to depict happy families snapping pictures as a kind of background beat to the everyday experience of living one’s days – picture-taking in the hands of children, picture-taking for no special occasion. And with the spread of cellphones equipped with high quality digital cameras for still and video capture, now the majority of the world’s peoples take photos to share, print, or hold privately. As a result of the psychologically “no-cost” of visual recording, even the most banal subjects are captured and may well end up among the images found in the Internet Archive for future generations to wonder at.
What is the connection between the concept in one’s mind for what makes a worthy subject and the way one moves through the world and recognizes certain things as “photo opportunities” while other things are invisible or unremarkable, either in one’s own sensibilities or worth capturing to show to others in one’s world who might find interest in the matter? Just as form factor affects what one can and cannot readily photograph (point-and-shoot compared to large-format camera on tripod), this mental filter or measuring stick also affects what one willingly or unwillingly can photograph. In other words, there are certain subjects that are compulsory photo events: weddings, class photos, tourist sites, and even funerals in some societies or moments of history. But other subjects pass unnoticed, unremarked upon, taken-for-granted.
Related to the concept of what rises to the level of significance to make a person reach for cellphone or pull a big camera off the shelf to make some shots, there is also the aspect of purpose: on a photo walk maybe there is no predetermined subject and it is up to one’s muse to stir the feelings needed to compose a shot. But for a scheduled event or one that accidentally happens, then the purpose is given and the boundaries of what is or is not relevant will define the scope of shooting pictures and video clips. If wildlife is one’s purpose, then perhaps a big camera and long lens will narrow one’s view of the passing scenery and will shape the intentionality that adds meaning to the excursion. But if social commentary is one’s purpose, then the subject can probably be captured with a normal or wide focal length lens. And the convenience of carrying an inconspicuous enthusiast, point-and-shoot, or cellphone camera will mediate the experience of moving through one’s world, watching for moments and subjects that express something about the general society or the specific lives in view. And if one goes beyond snapping single subjects in isolation and aims to document a wide-ranging subject across many locations, settings, and days or weeks, then this extended purpose will affect one’s view of the surroundings and will determine what is relevant or is not connected to the subject.
These same reflective observations about the influence of one’s purpose on one’s vision of the world applies not only to photographic capture and representations of a subject, but can be extended by metaphor to the wider meanings of one’s worldview; that is, the physical dimensions of one’s engagement with and exposure to the world (form-factor) is one influence on the resulting experience. But also one’s purpose (what is your business; your stake-holding; your reputation or name or expectations) will define what comes to be seen relevant or else is invisible to one’s mind. Just so a “high flyer” will barely notice the details of the ground, while a “ground crawler” will find it hard to imagine the big picture view that the high flyer enjoys. And someone in the business of wedding pictures will respond to situations where his or her services and wealth of experience may be applied; whereas a tourist passing through the same locations as that wedding photographer will have other purposes, or possibly will have no set purpose, and therefore will frame the day in different terms. Conclusion: consider carefully your purposes – be aware what preoccupies you (and by extension you will also know what you are blind to). Consider carefully, also, your gear —the form factor– that will affect what you see as a recognizable subject.