Friday, February 18, 2011

Good advice from "On Being a Photographer"

If you want to buy a new copy of On Being a Photographer by David Hurn and Bill Jay all you need to do is go to and pay $489.99. No, that's not a typo. $489.99 for a 96 page paperback 3rd edition published in 2007. Yes, I know that I have posted about how fast photo books go up in value. My biggest surprise recently was finding out that the Michael Kenna Retrospective exhibition catalog I bought in Paris in 2009 for 40 euros is (at the time I am writing this) listed at $888.15. Who pays this kind of money? People who light their cuban cigars with $100 bills, I imagine. As for me, well, I don't smoke and I barely have enough change for the parking meter. But thanks to the wonders of inter-library loan, On Being a Photographer (second edition—probably worth even more) is sitting on my coffee table right now. It hasn't been checked out since 2005 and if I had no conscience I would forget to return it. But never fear, librarians, I would never do such a thing. Instead, I will take copious notes, do a post or two about it, and then send it back to sit on a shelf, unappreciated.

The book is in dialog form, which I find very appealing—especially given that both authors contribute equally. This sets it apart from the single-authored dialogic tradition in which one interlocuter expresses the author's opinions and the others are just there to be wrong (sorry Plato. sorry Diderot.) It also sets it apart from most interviews.

Realizing that the exorbitant price may raise your expectations about the content, let me remind you that the authors do not take themselves for Donald Trump, spouting platitudes for big bucks. Reading the book is more like eavesdropping on a great conversation in a coffee shop.

Here are some great words of advice from the chapter "Selecting a Subject" :

The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing visual interest, in the theme of the pictures. This curiosity leads to intense examination, reading, talking, research and many, many failed attempts over a long period of time. (30)

Let us make a point clear: when the subject takes precedence, you not only start the journey towards a personal style but you also discover the sheer joy of visually responding to the world. (31)

the photographer is, primarily, a subject-selector. (31)

The authors then go on to teach some principles of subject selection:

They suggest that you compile of list of things that really interest you, "subjects which fascinate you without regard to photography." (31) Ask yourself "What could inflame your passion and curiosity over a long period of time? Once you've got a list, then you begin to edit it based on your answers to the following questions:

Is it visual?
If it doesn't lend itself to visual exploration then cross it out.

Is it practical?
For example, I love Tokyo, but unfortunately I haven't been to Japan since I was 15, so that doesn't make the cut.

Is it a subject about which I know enough?
This isn't to say that you couldn't start learning about something new, but I really like their example, "you are not contributing anything to the issue of urban poverty by wandering back streets and snatching photos of derelicts in doorways. That's exploitation, not exploration." (32)

Is it interesting to others?
Keep in mind that they are writing for people who want to be professional photographers. My own belief is that if you are passionate enough about your topic it can become interesting to others. But I do see their point. If you are equally passionate about several things and one of them may be more interesting to others, then choose that one.

For me, the advice "Be as specific as possible" is preaching to the choir. When it comes to writing papers I always tell my students that I have never—no, not once—told a student that their thesis was too specific. I dare them to be the first, and yet every time I end up writing "be more more precise, etc." on about half of the work that gets turned in. The same goes for a photo essay. Instead of "Flowers," for example, they suggest narrowing it down to something like "Plants that Relate to Architecture," or instead of "Portraits," perhaps "Cleveland Sculptors in Their Studios." None of this means that you can't let your work grow organically, but you need a good starting point.

"What is the alternative to an emphasis on subject matter? It is a frantic grasping for instant gratification which all too often leads to works displaying pyrotechnics but of dubious depth and resonance." (34)

They are both critical of the self-absorbed navel-gazing photographer:

"Most photographers would do the world a favor by diminishing, not augmenting, the role of self and, as much as possible, emphasizing subject along." (34)

Not that subjectivity isn't inherent to the medium, but the self shouldn't be the primary aim. I really liked their idea about personal style. A lot of photographers worry more than they should about creating their own unique visual style, when it really should emerge as a by-product:

"Over a long period of time and through many, many images, the self re-emerges with even greater strength than if it were the end-product. Ironically, by starting with the self, it is missed; ignore it, and it becomes evident." (35)

A beautiful example is given—one that explains why my wife take such great photos of our children:
"Take a mother on a beach watching her child build sand-castles. She suddenly sees an expression which tugs at her heart-strings. Without a thought, she dips into the picnic basket, aims the camera, and presses the button. The moment has been captured—and will be treasured for the rest of her life."
That kind of knowledge and love of the subject constitutes 85% of what it takes to make great photography, they claim. The remaining 15%? Learning to turn the particular into the universal.


Unknown said...

I like that principal. The knowledge and love of the subject does indeed make pictures that much better.