But he doesn’t have to leave his property to find something worth looking at again and again. One of his most memorable photo essays is an ongoing series of pictures taken from the front porch of his house: his kids playing on a toboggan in a blizzard, his wife’s belly, the dog. They mean something to him, and to the rest of us as well – they remind us of the kinds of details we care about, whether we realize it or not.
When he returned from Haiti, Mr. Towell didn’t look at the photographs he had taken for a month. That way, the ones he didn’t like might become his favourites, and vice versa. “Time changes the image.”
Good pictures that tell a story, he said, are always about other people. But when “everybody with a phone thinks they’re a photographer,” the result is “the autobiographical and the narcissistic.”
Mr. Towell’s grandparents used to have their picture taken once a year, and they had to dress up and go into town to have it done. He cherishes those photographs today. They are a record of what was. But he fears that his granddaughters won’t have any memorable photographs of their own children: They will be lost in the technological deluge.
“People aren’t photographing for history any more. It’s for immediate gratification. If you’re photographing to share an image, you’re not photographing to keep it.”
At Magnum Photos, arguably the most talented collective of storytelling photographers ever assembled (the agency was founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, among others), there is an old tradition: A photographer, especially a young one, would visit three other Magnum photographers he or she respected with a box of prints. The three chosen colleagues marked the pictures they liked.
At the Charlottesville Festival of the Photograph, in Virginia, Czech photographer Josef Koudelka recently explained how he’d picked his three judges: One had to understand composition and photography. The second had to know about life. “Then I need the third one just for correction, who knows something about both.”
On that score, today he would be mostly out of luck.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Charlottesville Festival of the Photograph is in North Carolina. This version has been corrected.