People have always asked me why I’m into photography. The early answer was pathetic. “I don’t know.” And the conversation would end. A few years in, the answer evolved to something pretentious and annoying, like, “I simply enjoy the idea that this machine can freeze a moment in time forever.” This cringe-worthy statement delivered, the conversation would end. Nowadays the answer to the perennial question is more experienced, less lofty, but succinct and honest. I like photography because it’s the best of all possible hobbies.
Not long ago, yesterday in fact, I arrived home from the day-job to find my pant’s pocket empty and my house keys hanging from a hook on the opposite side of a locked front door. I gazed blankly through a frosty window at the glistening keys, swore once, and retreated to the warmth of my just-parked car. My wife wouldn’t be home for a few hours, no spare key, and shattering a window was a bit too extreme. I had time to kill. Recalling that I needed a roll of Kodak Ektar and a couple of batteries, I fired up the ignition and made my way to the local camera shop.
On arrival, I found the batteries and the Ektar, and was heading toward the checkout counter when a friendly worker said, “Hey James, we got a G2 in if you want to see it?” Ten minutes later I left the store with my battery, film, a Contax G2 with Zeiss Planar 45mm F/2 prime, and a Leica Minilux for good measure.
Well, that escalated quickly.
Having another couple of hours in which to contemplate my penchant for forgetfulness and my susceptibility to reduced-price photo gear, I stopped at a sandwich shop, grabbed dinner, and read through my new camera’s manual to completion. On leaving, with still an hour left to go, I noticed that the sun was doing some neat things in the center of our solar system, and decided that driving a few hundred yards closer to it would put me in a good position to shoot it, plus some trees and a cloud or two.
And as I sat there watching this stellar display, with time to waste and a bin full of unexpected and interesting cameras sitting on the passenger seat, a voluptuous, moisture-dense cloud in the distance billowed upward and shed sudden sheets of rain. The raking sunbeams played through the undulating veil of kinetic moisture and illuminated the back edges of the clouds, and drew forth texture from the trees and the sand. The whole thing was remarkably beautiful – and not what one expects to see from the vantage point of a Panera Bread parking lot.
It got me thinking. Why do I love photography? And the answer was there. But not in the form of the camera in my hand or the new ones I’d bought earlier in the day, or even in the photos of the setting sun and the sudden weather. It was there in the momentary rest found in the middle of a stressed-to-the-point-of-forgetting-your-keys-like-an-imbecile modern life.
But it’s more than that, too. And remember, I was locked out of my house for at least another hour. I had time to entertain the thought.
There are many hobbies available to us if we just decide to dive into them, and many hobbies can provide the moments of relaxation and reflection I’ve detailed just now. But not all hobbies are created equal. I’ve had a number of pursuits over the years – building motorcycles, watch collecting, physical fitness, cars… the list goes on. And while these hobbies have been fun and important to me, they’re mostly transitory experiences that wane over time and leave only a general interest when they’ve passed. So, what is it about photography that makes it relevant year after year, decade after decade?
To start, I think photography is distinct from many hobbies in that it’s a hobby of creation while so many others I’ve tried are hobbies of collection and consumption. Collecting watches or being really into whiskey or hunting or fishing – these are all fine pursuits. But to use these as example, I was only ever spending cash to amass trinkets that might never be used, or drinking and later excreting fluids, or harming lesser animals. There was little opportunity to leave something in a better state than I found it. In fact, things were usually worse off because of my hobby. I’d scratched a couple of previously undamaged Speedmasters, emptied a bunch of bottles, or stabbed a metal hook through the eye of a now-blind Bass. Ouch.
With photography, every time I take a walk I’m afforded an opportunity to create something. Every time I go to the beach, or the park, or go out with the family, or take a trip, or even sit in a Panera Bread parking lot I’m given the chance to create. And it’s hard to think of a hobby that offers the same kind of flexible, accessible opportunity for creation. Other hobbies, like painting or furniture-making give an avenue for the creative, of course, but none do so as easily as photography. My father’s a woodworker, but you’re not going to find him spinning a lathe in the parking lot of a Panera Bread or cutting dados at Thanksgiving dinner.
Photography’s also a hobby that’s useful as a document of our existence. If you’re any kind of thinking human being you’ll understand the temporaneous nature of our lives. Worrisome individuals, like myself, will also rage against the inexorable march of time, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to shoot photos. Take shots of your life. Shoot your travels, and adventures, and friends and family, and compile those images into albums and give them away as gifts. Frame your photos and hang them on your walls. Relive the moments that are gone forever and shoot today to remember it tomorrow. You’ll be thankful that you did, and so will the people who care about you when you’re nothing more than a handful of ash.
But let’s not get too glum. We’ve still got life ahead of us, and we’re not just shooting for posterity. Photography brings light to the living and augments every aspect of the shooter’s life in a way that no other hobby can. In fact, it even augments our other hobbies. Into motorcycles? Then you’ll be into shooting photos of your motorcycle. Into entomology? Then you’ll have a fun time learning about macro shooting. Do you love to travel? Don’t do it without a camera. Are you a family man? Well there’s nothing better than making a gorgeous print of your beautiful little kids. Photography is the only hobby that improves every facet of our lives. That’s remarkable.
And it’s not just for photo geeks. Anyone can shoot. Photography is accessible in ways that most hobbies simply aren’t. It doesn’t matter if you’re talented. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, where you live, where you come from, who your parents are. If you’re a Wall Street guy with a massive disposable income, by all means shoot a Leica M240. But don’t be mad when a kid from Nowhere, Kansas earns a gallery showing with his Pentax K1000, something any kid could do, and for less than eighty bucks. There are no licenses to get, no special fees required, no registrations or taxes, no maintenance necessary. There are no rules dictating what you must shoot, how you must shoot, where, or when, or for whom. You can shoot whatever subject you want with whatever camera you’ve got. And all that matters is you’re having fun.
Photography is there when you want it, patient when you don’t. You can shoot every day for a year, stop, and come back after six months only to pick it up right where you left off. The camera takes up no room (hard to say about my old BMW), and doesn’t require winterizing. There are no monthly dues, no subscription fees. It’s take it, leave it, use it when you want forever.
And it’s not just for certain types of people. There’s enough variety within the hobby to keep things interesting for, literally, a lifetime. Never shot a camera? Good! Buy one and let’s get shooting. Have you shot SLRs your whole life? Try a rangefinder. Are you sick of the clinical precision of modern gear? You can shoot lenses from the 1960s as if they were manufactured yesterday. Bored (somehow) with basic photography? Try film, or pinhole, or view cameras, or shooting infrared, or underwater with a Nikonos. Want to focus on collecting? You can do that too. How about collecting only brass cameras, or Russian cameras, or only green, art deco, box cameras that were made in the United States? Yes, there’s literally something for everyone.
Of course, this is all opinion. There are many avenues to happiness. My point is, photography is whatever you want it to be. For different people it will be different things. For me, it’s relaxation. It’s the hunt for the special camera, the hunt for a better shot. It’s collecting. It’s making something out of nothing. It’s creating a document of my life. It’s giving the gift of images to the people around me. And it’s having something to do for a few hours when I’ve locked my stupid ass out of the house. In short, photography is the best hobby in the world. And that’s why I love it.