Why Do We Take Photographs?

Gary, Nick, Pat and me at Pat’s birthday party. Her granddaughter joined in.


Today I received news that a dear friend had passed away on her birthday. Pat and I had worked together 30 years ago and we stayed in touch throughout the years. In the office, we called her “Mom” and sometimes when we were out to lunch, we’d all sing “Happy Birthday, Mom” just as a joke. She’d usually cuss us out and walk out of the restaurant. (We were done eating by this time, anyway.)

A couple weeks ago I heard she was in the hospital and the doctors were not sure of her diagnosis. At first it looked like malaria, then maybe it was a form of lime disease. She was very weak had several blood transfusions. Finally she was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer. Her doctors and she agreed that chemotherapy was not practical. She passed away this morning surrounded by her family.

Upon hearing the news, one of my first reactions was to look for photographs of her – I found one (above) that was taken at her 70th birthday party three years ago. This was our old workgroup. I had brought along a point & shoot camera to her party; rather than be “the camera guy” I just wanted to enjoy the celebration with her and her family and friends. I took a couple of photos, but this was the keeper. I take comfort in looking at this photo.

I’ve been thinking about this photo and the reasons we take photographs like this. I’m not talking about portraits or artistic renditions. This obviously was a point-in-time photo which serves the purpose of capturing a few people in one place and time – “for the record” so to speak. For myself, I often feel like I need to capture a scene that my brain would likely forget.

It’s rather strange when I don’t take a photo like this, I feel like something is missing. The other day I had a chance to have lunch with my son in San Francisco. We had a great visit and only later did I realize that I didn’t have someone take a photo of us. For awhile I felt sad about it, and I’m not sure I can explain it. In one sense, it’s like the photograph marks a point along the journey, in much the same way a rock climber will install an anchor every so many feet – in case he slips, he falls back only so far. Or maybe it’s just a break in the routine – I usually pull out a camera and encourage a quick shot of the moment, so I might have been suffering a minor case of withdrawals.

As my sons were growing up, I took thousands of photos of them (this was before digital, so think “photos”, not image files.) Every birthday, vacation, graduation, first-day-of-school…every milestone captured on film. I guess I thought it would slow down the process but it didn’t. It just documented how quickly time flies and our kids grow up. I’m not sure why I took so many photos, but I couldn’t imagine not doing that. I could stack the photos and make an enormous animated flipbook of their lives.

I place a high value on having photos of events and people that are important to me, and I know this has something to do with my passion for making photographs for others. I feel like everyone should have photos like that and it’s my job to make sure they do, especially if they can’t do it themselves.

If I were a SuperHero, my super power would be Image Capturing for Everyone.

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3 thoughts on “Why Do We Take Photographs?

  1. Ron . . I stumbled upon your photos through the Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue site; specifically, coverage of their fundraiser Arts to the Rescue. Beautiful photos — there and on your website. I took photography courses at Sacramento City College in the 80s — such a great class! I don’t shoot as much as I write, but I do still enjoy it. Mainly, I shoot photos for my blog with my tiny digital, while my old-school Canon F-1 sits in the closet. That seems a little sad. I sure enjoyed your piece, “Why Do We Take Photographs” and all your photos.


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