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A Case for True Authenticity in Photography

As we crawl down the rabbit hole and the pursuit of the authentic reaches fever pitch, at some point you’ve gotta wonder how it is that so many authentic selves can look and sound so damned similar. This light, that composition. This kiss, that stare, and oh, those shoes. Do we all love photographing shoes that much? As we see more, do more, and push further, is there room to stand out in the increasingly hot and crowded space we call the wedding industry? Or is authenticity nothing more than a new twist on an old theme? A quick shot of empowerment to be followed by a Tequila chaser to keep us going on the treadmill.

At the heart of it all are two simple words. Trendy and timeless – bookends in the never-ending debate on substance, society, and self. Trendy, the pejorative cousin of stylish and fashionable, is change for the sake of change. Lacking in discipline and devoid of function, it is the diametric opposite of substantive and enduring. Timeless, on the other hand, is insight. Truth made visible, the eternal made tangible. Or so it would seem. Because though opposites they may be, in practice and reality, they are more commonly two sides of the same coin. Twins separated at birth.

The nature of trend is one of corruption. Trend is idea born out of concept and novelty, set on fire by popularity. Early cycles can show innovation and growth, but the relentless repetition of popular acceptance scrapes away at the meaty belly of process. We experience this feeling with regularity. Find a picture you love but haven’t seen before. Stare at it. You’ll notice how it moved you. Return to it one day later. Stare at it. You’ll notice how it was created.

Repeated exposure to similar themes dulls emotional power leaving only the veneer of technique to observe. The life cycle of a trend is complete when the focus has shifted fully from understanding the process and feeling the emotion to simply appropriating the look. A common axiom among poker players is “I’d rather be good than lucky.” Trendiness reverses this to become “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Or, worse yet, it fails to distinguish between the two altogether.

But if trendiness is the process of appropriating a look that is popularly accepted in the present, then timelessness is the process of appropriating a look that is popularly accepted in the past. In truth, the marketplace has performed some clever sleight of hand. It’s a bait and switch, substituting timeless for what should really be traditional. So while the source material may differ and the mileage may vary, the method of the traditional and the trendy is exactly the same: X is appealing and works. If Y looks like X, then Y will be appealing and work. This logic is flawed on two fronts.

First, this notion of replication and result misses the point. The marketplace waits for no one. If X has been introduced into the market before Y, the marketplace is already transformed, altering public reaction. Second, and more importantly, this model robs us of our ability to connect with ourselves. To create X is a wholly different process than to duplicate it. To sweat, labor, and love until an idea sees birth forms an intimate connection between author and craft. It connects us with the thrill of discovery and the nuance of creation. These are activities of constant question and response, and the crux of movement and growth. Copying requires no such commitment. It is peeking into the back of the book for the answers to the odd-numbered questions, then reverse-engineering the solution. Not fully devoid of value, but neither fully committed to the challenge. In the end, it’s not so much about the act of copying, so much as the failure to invest oneself in the details of creation. My father said it right. You’re only shortchanging yourself.

What we’re looking for then, is neither the traditional couched as timeless, nor the trendy. What we’re looking for is the authentic. Not the dime store, low-hanging variety we find steeped in nostalgia and false notions of the simple life. You can’t buy true authenticity by wearing the right clothing, being at the right coffee shop, and listening to the right music. The real stuff is ambiguous and strife-filled. It changes by the day, it never answers, but always questions, and it can only best be described as an enigma. But it is also the type of authenticity that gives back. It pushes and prods us. It forces us to commit. It is the stuff of identity and voice and the foundation of true timelessness.

After all, this is a world where the click, click, click of a million fingers will never stop telling us whether we’re loved, liked, disliked, or downright loathed. It is one where our value is measured in dollars and described only in the simplest terms. Success or failure. So if we are to survive and thrive, we must look inward for strength and clarity. It is the only place for us to turn. Photography is nothing more than an expression of our interests, after all. When we push the button. What we include in the frame. How we react to what’s around us, and how quickly we can process it all and transform it into a vision. Our vision.

To create is to feel the beat of our own hearts and the rhythm of our lives. It is to cut them open and smear them across the lens of life. And to do so, we must re-imagine the timeless. Not as a rule or standard frozen in history. Not as a fixed target. But as something that grows and evolves. Something that stands uniquely out of time, as the singular intersection of occurrence, place, the lives we lead, and the beliefs we hold. It must be unique. If all this sounds daunting or distant, the process is deceptively simple and comfortingly close. Commit to living. Never run. Swallow everything whole, and let the art be the result of a life well-lived.

About Spencer Lum

Spencer is a storyteller with an indelible belief in the raw humanity of weddings. 

With 10 years of experience running Brooklyn-based 5 West Studios, he has developed a style that combines influences from fine art and photojournalism. He has also enjoyed time as a designer, creative director, and filmmaker. 

Spencer is the founder of the industry blog, Ground Glass, as well as a doting husband and father of two beautiful children in Brooklyn, NY. 

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!