According to the legend, in 1899 the head of the U.S. Patent Office sent his resignation to President McKinley urging the closing of the office because “everything that could be invented has been invented.” Although this may be a misquoted legend, it so well illustrates the lack of foresight it continues to be misquoted, as I am doing here.
Following the footsteps of the patent office director, I would like to ask “have all the great sunset photographs been already taken and we should stop photographing the sunsets?” Of course, you can expand this to include any subject you like. The fundamental question here is: “is it possible to produce a great photograph or even a competent one of a subject that has been photographed thousands, possibly millions of times?” The answer, in my opinion, lies in the purpose of taking photographs.
If you labor over a composition in the studio or outdoors, consider the lighting, the pose, placement of the subject in the frame, all possible elements that would make a great photograph, and then click your shutter to capture that great moment. When does that work become “photography,” great or competent? Now, imagine the worst, you accidentally opened the camera back and ruined the film, or erased your digital capture. Will we ever know how great that photograph was? A little better situation might be that you develop that great photograph, print it masterfully, put it on your wall and never share it with anyone. You will feel a sense of accomplishment but the rest of the world will still not get a chance to appreciate your work, nor will you be recognized as the person who took that masterpiece.
I think you know where I am going with this. Just because we have listened to fifteen cantatas by Bach, the sixteenth one does not become mundane, just equally splendid and wonderfully different. I see photography as “a method of communication of ideas in a creative way.” Depending on the nature of the communication, we take different photographs. The essence of this communication, I will submit, is in “reseeing” with a new eye, hence the value of communication. Otherwise, we might as well hang all our cameras and declare that “we have collectively taken all possible photographs there is to take” since literally millions of people have been taking photographs for decades.
This is certainly not true for me. I am equally delighted by a new sunset since they are all different, each nude photograph since they carry different emotions on similar bodies, each flower picture since they evoke different feelings every time. Those that are extremely similar to others I have seen may fail to create the same excitement.
That’s fine; somebody has not seen it yet.
Addendum January 14, 2015: In hind sight I realize that I have not been clear on the core idea. This post was not to encourage photographers to keep producing cliché sunsets. The emphasis, although implicit in the quoted “reseeing with a new eye,” I should have clearly stated that there are many ways to see and experience sunsets, or any other subject for that matter. Well, I hope I am augmenting the blurry message with this addendum.