On Photography and The Phantom Tollbooth

This is a story about why I take pictures. (one of the many reasons!)

At some point in our evolutions as photographers, I’m sure we have all said to ourselves “Why am I doing this?” What drives us to grab our cameras in the morning along with our jacket and shoes and make photographs?

What drives us to attempt to transcend the realm of the “snapshot” and to create “art” with our cameras?

The answer to this is as individual and unique as all of us – we each have our own answer(s), so allow me to share one of mine.

Whenever I ask myself that question (or someone else asks me!) the first thing that pops into my head is “The Phantom Tollbooth”

To explain: “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a book by Norton Juster, one of my favorite books when I was a child. It is ostensibly about a discontent young boy who one day discovers a mysterious tollbooth in his room, driving through which takes him into a strange “Alice-in-Wonderland” style alternate reality. All of his adventures however are rich with allegory, social commentary, satire and even philosophical and mathematical discussions on the nature of life and the universe. It is one of those childrens books that can still be appreciated by adults for it’s depth of meaning and richness of language and concept.

In particular when I think about why I photograph, I recall a particular chapter in the book that made a profound impact on me when I was young.

The passage begins with Milo (the protagonist) coming upon what appears to be a bustling metropolis – people running here and there, going to work, going home – busy busy busy. The strange thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any “city” visible – no buildings, no parks, no cars, nothing – they people are just running around in seemingly empty space. And this is what Milo learns about the city (quoted):

The City of Reality

“…the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it. They all rushed down the avenues and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties of their city as they went.

No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”

Now when I read the book as a child, I thought that was just about the most awfully tragic thing I had ever heard, and it still stuck with me as a I grew older. I think too often we find ourselves in the positions of “racing from place to place, looking at our shoes” The hackneyed old “stop and smell the roses” cliche rings more true than ever in our increasingly hectic, fast paced lives. You can open any paper and find articles on how we are overworked, over-stressed, over-stimulated, over-everything-ed.

For me, photography is a way of “reframing” that state – of forcing me to slow down and actually *look* at the world around – not just with the eyes, but with the mind – with the heart. Whether I am looking at a flower, a beautiful landscape a model or whatever I want to make sure I *see* it. I refuse to let the city around me disappear.

The act of creating a photograph becomes a meditation on our true perception of life.

And that is why I photograph.

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