Intention and Memory

By David Vestal Back to


By the time I’ve written a column and sent it off, I usually have forgotten not only what it was about it, but even that I wrote it. PT Editor Scott Lewis can confirm that I once sent him two columns, one after the other, with the same title and on the same theme. He was surprised when the second one arrived, and I was surprised when he told me. And of course I don’t remember what the title and theme were, nor which version was published.

I do recall that I wrote essentially the same thing twice, in different sentences. That is, I agreed with myself. This may just show how peculiar I am, or it may show that I’m normal. I can’t tell which, and I don’t see that it matters. It’s out of my control.

The same disconnection happens when I photograph. By the time I print a picture I have usually forgotten taking it. Not always. The ones I most remember taking tend to end up either uncommonly good or uncommonly bad. I may remember what something looked like when I took its picture, or that I had great confidence in it, or serious doubt. My “great confidence” shots often fail miserably, and my “serious doubt” ones generally have a better chance to work. This, too, is out of my control.

In a recent California workshop with Al Weber, our group went to Point Lobos, made famous by Edward Weston’s photos. Point Lobos surprised me by being much bigger and more varied and complicated than it had seemed to me from Weston’s pictures and the words in his published Daybooks.

By the way, I strongly recommend Edward Weston’s Daybooks. They are, in part, an antidote to the deification that some writers try to impose on that thoroughly human photographer. Through his Daybooks, not written for publication, we can get a relatively clear idea of what he thought and how he felt, and can somewhat understand him. He was a real person with the usual virtues and faults, and a most talented and productive one. Realizing this is better for us than believing all the worshipful non- sense that some art authorities have written about him.

What do I remember about photographing on Point Lobos? Not much. I recall trying to photograph dark rocks and white surf below the bluff where I was standing. And, more or less incidentally, I remember taking some closeup shots of grass, trees, and bushes, but no one of them stuck in my memory.

Results? All but two of my rocks-and- surf photos failed completely, while several of the detail closeups turned out better. I hadn’t paid enough attention to how the waves and rocks fitted, or failed to fit, in the rectangle. I concentrated too much on trying for timing—white splashes against black rocks—and forgot to notice how they were placed in the pictures.

More such things happened two days later in a brief visit to Yosemite. I didn’t try to photograph any of the Big Scenery—in an hour or two I can’t compete with Ansel Adams, who spent years there—but I saw something smaller that was new to me, so I tried that. I saw some small, lacy details, sunlit leaves and twigs, between me and and some dark trees. Just one of those photos works, and I don’t remember taking it. The lacy stuff is seen against big tree trunks, black and near-black, and a light background. I remember playing with those lacy leaves and twigs in the camera, but none of the other photos in that series is worth printing. One trial print showed bright mini-garbage against dark maxi-garbage, but not clearly enough. My one photo of the series that works may be worth showing here. I like the picture and think I found something good in that lacy, over-massive combination. I’ll probably try it again, if and when I see it. You are welcome to try it, too. Who am I to tell you what to do or not do? Things that we see and our ideas about them are not private property. They don’t belong to anyone. They are waiting for us to see and use them.

There’s room for many ways of photographing. Some that suit me may or may not suit you, and what suits you may or may not work for me. Ansel Adams recorded his exposure and development data for each of a great many photos, and knew just where he took them, but he couldn’t always remember a picture’s year. I don’t remember exposure data, and my film development seldom changes, but my filing system tells me the year for almost every picture. I may or may not remember where I took it.

My intention, always, is to show what I saw and loved or hated enough so I want others to see it too. When someone looks at a picture, in effect, a circuit is closed. The picture “lights up,” or it doesn’t, for that viewer. If I’m the only viewer who gets it, tough. I will like it anyway. I can only judge my pictures by whether or not they work for me—a matter of recognition, not of thought or calculation.

The working principle is that we are all very much alike, so we can understand each other; and each of us is also unique, different from everyone else, so we have things to show each other. With luck, what we show others will reward their attention.

It seems to me that our intentions don’t much matter. Whether we remember taking a photo must matter even less. Yet any picture that rewards a viewer is a joy.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.