Annotation: On Being a Photographer

Over the past few months, I’ve read several essays and books that address (in one fashion or another) the question of being a photographer: what does it entail; what is the difference between one who takes photographs, and a photographer; and how does the “why” of photography change when one shifts between those two delineations? The problem lies in that those questions are entirely subjective, a matter of opinion and educated guesswork, nothing more. As such, all it’s really possible to do is take a sampling of as many different takes, and glean what you can from each. Taken in this light, this book was both insightful as well as a bit of a throwback to things I’d already read.

First, a bit of background: Bill Jay has been a photographer, writer, and editor for the past 30 years, involved with several international photography publications, including the now defunct “Album”. David Hurn is one of the “renowned” Magnum photographers, Magnum being an elite group of exceptional photojournalists from around the world–the only way to become a member of Magnum is if all the other Magnum photographers unanimously agree. He spent a great deal of his younger life roaming all over the world for various magazines, including “Life”, among others. He spent some time recording the Turkish revolt in the 50s, followed by some time in Paris as a fashion photographer (quite the dichotomy). He also founded the School of Documentary Photography in Great Britain. The two authors met at a seminar, and have remained friends ever since.

The book itself is interesting to read, as it is in fact essentially a glorified transcription of some twelve hours of recorded conversations on photography that they’ve had. As such, the text is broken into dialogue, as an interview. This was an interesting (and largely effective) method to take with the subject material. By providing actual dialogue, it allows for greater freedom for both authors to feed off each other, neither required to compromise their ideas in favor of the other person, since each opinion and idea is clearly “owned” by one or the other.

The interview process was surprisingly well structured: Jay, who lead the interview, certainly seemed to have a firm idea as to what he wanted to cover, and quite capable of staying on track. There were a few times where I think he cut the conversation short of a potentially valuable and (at the risk of using an oxymoron) topical digression. Hurn had/has a habit of going into long expositions on the minutiae of some obscure aspect of the question at hand, which are truly delightful to read, and quite interesting.

There was much information to be gleaned from this interview: after defining their own uses of terms such as documentary photography, reportage, and photojournalism, they discussed the selection of your subject. This was more reiteration of the same advice given by so many others: photograph what you know. They did, however, expand on that notion: it’s not just what you know, but what you are passionate about. BOTH are necessary if you want your photography to be poignant.

One particularly common myth that they addressed was that of the “single picture:” taking just one picture of a subject and getting it with the first try. To the contrary, professionals will often take a dozen photographs of any given desired shot. Ansel Adams took over a dozen nearly identical images of the scene that became “Moon over Half-Dome”. That is closer to standard practice than the “single image” that so many people think happens.

Since Hurn and Jay had already clarified the fallacy of the “single shot”, the next major topic in the interview was the next logical step: the contact sheets. Hurn had some good ideas in regards to archiving images, ideas which I plan to adapt and implement in a digital form. Contact sheets (“proofs”) have a variety of uses. They serve as a useful first step in the process of redaction, because it allows one to view multiple images at once, making it easier to select only the best. Additionally, contact sheets, when coupled with storing negatives in a similar fashion, allows for easy cataloging and archiving of large bodies of work. That said, they are relatively inexpensive to make and can easily be recreated, giving the artist the freedom to mark them as they wish (grease pens, et cetera, for redactive purposes), without incurring serious expense. Currently, I’m switching over to the image management system in iPhoto. This arranges my images by date automatically, offers the opportunity to add notes on any given image, and also has the option to make “albums” of scalable thumbnails to expedite the redaction process the in same fashion that contact sheets do. Honestly, I wish I’d started out archiving in this fashion… while a bit more work, it would have made earlier projects much easier.

A minor shift in gears (I wouldn’t be surprised if the new topic had been brought up after taking a break or something), they went from discussion of contact sheets to the discussion of the picture essay. While the progression is relatively apparent (you make contact sheets in order to redact your images in order to create your photo essay), the conversation itself made it a bit more out of synch than that. There was a great deal of Hurn (a world-famous photojournalist/essayist) preaching his own personal opinions on the matter, which became a little tiresome. While the discussion of redaction was both enlightening and useful, there is only so much you are willing to listen to “how things should be done” (Hurn refuses to call himself a photojournalist anymore, because the term has been misused, for instance). It was, however, the last linear topic of the interview.

There proceeded to be a short discussion on the “essentials” of photography — of the physical type. Relatively rudimentary stuff, like “use the camera that suits your purposes, not necessarily what others suggest or are using”, “dress appropriately for the occasion–better to be overdressed than underdressed at an event”, and (of course!) “find a damn good pair of shoes”. You could tell that the interview was winding down, which is fine: often some of the best insight is found in the post-official interview, and certainly merits inclusion.

It wasn’t really until the final section of the interview, once things had broken down to a much more casual conversation, that they discussed digital photography. The digital medium came up as they were discussing the “future of photography”, though they still had a relatively low opinion of digital. I’d have to disagree with them on some points: they felt that the immediacy of the feedback acts as a detriment towards good photographic practice. I cannot agree AT ANY LEVEL with that statement. It is still possible and advisable to proof your images once you get home, in the same fashion that you would use contact sheets. I’m inclined to take MORE images of the same subject, because I don’t have the cost of film and development hanging over my head (something I think they miss… Hurn commented at one point that he buys film by the case… 100 rolls at a time). I’m empowered to explore different angles and views, encouraging a stronger image, not a weaker one. Another point I disagree with them on is the devaluing of the image, because it can “so easily be altered”. This is an extremely limited view of the issue. Photographs have been manipulated for as long as the medium has been around. Retouching is a common practice at portrait studios. Blatant, outright alteration was at one point common practice (during the pictorialist era, before “straight photography” became the vogue), and is becoming so again. Where do they think Photoshop got the ideas for its tools?

I am willing to forgive them the sour taste left me from that last section of the interview, as the rest of the book was quite delightful and informative. There WAS another section to the book, a listing of various photographic myths plus a paragraph or two debunking each, however I don’t feel it merits commentary, as it really was just a compacted, summarized form of topics addressed in the interview. Overall, I’d say this book proved to be quite useful (if hard to get: you can only order it online from the publisher, it can’t be found in any bookstore). I’ve still got questions, but at least now I have a bit more data to answer them for myself with.

Hurn, David; Jay, Bill. On Being a Photographer. Lenswork Publishing, 2001.