What makes photography a strange invention – with unforeseeable consequences – is that its primary raw materials are light and time. – John Berger
We can probably agree there are many different perceptions/concepts/philosophies about photography. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be having these discussions. Similar discussions to those that began in the 1800s and are renewed at each inflection point in the evolution of photography: the initial introduction of the technology, painting and drawing vs photography, realism vs pictorialism, digital vs analog, mirror vs mirrorless, and now the introduction of “artificial intelligence” in image making and image processing. We’re still trying to resolve, whether for ourselves as individual photographers or in an attempt to create a type of “general theory” of photography, the relationships between the photographer, the device (camera), and the photograph, in addition to the viewers and interpretations of photographs. In this Part II, I’ll discuss the act of photography and aspects of the relationship between the photographer and the camera. In Part III, I’ll address the photograph.
“A photograph needs an audience. Or does it?” – Ted Orland, The View from the Studio Door
As a reminder, I stated for simplicity in Part I, and to distinguish between the two parts of the title, photography is a process and the photograph is a thing. A somewhat controversial concept might be that a photograph isn’t even a required component of photography. The process of making the photographic exposure alone could be enough for the photographer to gain pleasure and personal growth. And, at least, showing your photographs to others isn’t a requirement to call yourself a photographer or to receive something from photography. An example is Vivian Maier, who photographed for years and never had her film developed. Not everyone will agree. Henri Cartier-Bresson even said “My passion has never been for photography ‘in itself,’ but for the possibility – through forgetting yourself – of recording in a fraction of a second the emotion of the subject, and the beauty of the form; that is, a geometry awakened by what’s offered.” For HCB, the process was a means to an end; the capture of the subject, like the capture of a prey. But this dichotomy of photography is different from most every other art form where the process nearly always results in something physical.
In most art forms the process and the product are inseparable. You can’t paint without making a painting or carve a piece of stone or wood without making a sculpture (quibbles over definitions of painting and sculpture aside). Painting, drawing, pottery, and carving are words describing both the action and the product. Photography, and photographing, are words describing an activity during which the photographer is doing something toward the eventual making of a photograph. This activity involves a wide range of things the photographer does, sometimes well before finger depresses shutter release: researching subjects, thinking about the subject, processing memories or life in general, exploring locations, observing the light, observing the subject and color, shadow, form, and texture, juxtaposition, balance, subject and compositional element relationships, etc., thinking about and reviewing past photographs and their strengths and weaknesses, reading, listening to music, talking with other photographers, friends, strangers, etc. All of these activities inform and influence the eventual photograph, whether the photographer is consciously thinking of these elements at the time of exposure or not. The process of photography doesn’t just happen when you have your camera in hand searching for something pretty or interesting or funny to snap. Regardless if I have my camera or not, when I’m looking I’m seeing photographs. As I’m scanning the environment I’m “cropping” various parts of the scenes in my mind, “zooming” in and out with an imaginary lens, examining arrangements, isolating, including, exploring relationships. This prepares me for when I do have my camera, searching for subjects to photograph and looking through the viewfinder. This process not only applies to photography, but also to every other art form, and to just being. Awareness and observation of your surroundings makes things more interesting than succumbing to sensory adaptation.
Photographers (and viewers) often think of photography and photographs as indistinguishable parts of the process; one cannot exist without the other. In a sense, this is true. But, the process of photography and the making of the photograph can be broken down into sets of discrete steps and, thus, separated from one another as distinct but interconnected processes. I’ve described the steps (phases) of photography in other texts; they are Exploration, Isolation, Organization, and Exposure. The steps involved in the photograph are Exposure/Ingestion (digital download), Edit, Process, Print, and Display.
The camera, the photographer’s primary tool for making photographs, and its operation, can also be addressed separately with a list of discrete steps for both photographer and camera and in which photography becomes a subset of the individual. Photography, for some, becomes a way of being, a way of interacting with the world. The steps in camera operation are, generally, Observe, Compose, Focus, Settings, Expose. There is overlap with the final step of camera operation, Expose, and the photography process. Exposure, the press of the shutter release, is the culmination of a number of factors leading to that particular moment that can take seconds or years to reach. Those factors are specific to the individual: Experience, Skill, Knowledge, Prejudice and Bias, Goals, and Intent (past, present, and future). All aspects of the processes of photography, photographer, camera, and photograph are interrelated, overlap, and the relationships between them are circular, or web-like. Rarely is the line from inspiration/conception/idea/influence to finished image a straight one. The camera (using the word as a catch-all including all other photographic equipment), different from tools of other art forms, has almost from the beginning of photography taken over the definition of photography. I’m not aware of any other art form other than digital illustration and some aspects of music, where the primary device for creating the art receives as much, and sometimes more, attention than the art or the artist, and for which an entire industry has been developed. Where are the paintbrush and typewriter websites, magazines and podcasts?
Well-known photographers Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Mary Ellen Mark, Man Ray, Yousuf Karsh, and many others, wrote and spoke about the photographer’s relationship with equipment. The general consensus among these photographers is the photographer makes the photograph, not the equipment. But the camera, its type/format, brand, capabilities, accessories, etc. is often at the forefront of many discussions and inquiries about photographs and photographers. Vilem Flusser (1920-1991), in his book Toward a Philosophy of Photography (1984), asks a question “is a human being in possession of a camera, or a camera in possession of a human being?” We see it in photography quite often, especially with questions from photographers and non-photographers alike when viewing photographs; what camera did you use?, what lens did you use?, what were your settings?, what software/action/preset did you use?, as if the equipment is the key to making the photograph interesting or beautiful and duplication in another time and place will produce the same result. We all know the photographer who is defined by their gear, who must have the latest and greatest equipment, but their photographs are maybe not up to par with their arsenal. But that’s not entirely what Flusser means when asking the question.
Our equipment does partially dictate what and how we photograph. In the act or gesture of photography the camera does the will of the photographer, but the photographer can only photograph what can be photographed given the capabilities of the camera and the light-sensitive medium the camera uses to record the energy from photons. Even if we have all the funds available at our disposal to acquire all the equipment we need, our photographs are still limited by the capabilities of the gear we hold in our hand at the time of making the exposure. We’re still limited by the field of view and depth of field of the lens, of the size of the image sensor or film stock, the noise and grain of sensor and film, the dynamic range of light recorded by sensor or film, the weight of camera equipment, the availability of accessories and the cost of cameras and accessories, etc., in addition to our own skill and knowledge to operate that equipment to the best of our ability.
Flusser categorizes the camera’s possession of the photographer by defining two types of images, traditional and technical. Traditional images are symbols which come directly from observations of the real world, made by the “hand of the artist” from original and unique expressions of experience and interpretations “in the [artist’s] head”. Prehistoric cave painting is his example. I think modern painting, drawing, pottery, sculpting, and other art forms made directly by the hand of the artist would fit the definition of traditional images as well. Technical images are made by apparatuses (cameras, for our purpose of discussion) which are twice removed from the hand and mind of the artist through the programming, mechanics, and limitations of the camera. Technical images are also infinitely reproducible by apparatuses (printers or darkroom reproduction) where traditional images are one of a kind. Flusser views the camera only superficially analogous to artist tools like the paintbrush. The paintbrush or chisel and the resulting artwork is directly connected to the mind of the artist through the hand, whereas the complex programming, capabilities and limitations of the camera intervene between the artist and the photograph. In the photograph, we only indirectly see the hand and mind of the photographer because the photographer’s observation of the real world, the internal traditional image, is abstracted and controlled by the capabilities and limitations of the apparatus, the camera.
John Berger (1926-2017), in Understanding A Photograph, adds that the invention of the lightweight, automatic, camera changed the process of making photographs (and art, in a general sense) from a ritual (taking time to observe, set up, wait, expose) to a simple reflex – point and shoot. This resonates with me because when I was learning photography I wanted to photograph using medium and large format cameras, but didn’t have the funds for the equipment. So when I was learning the process of photography using 35mm, I treated the camera as if it was medium or large format, taking time to observe and set up the shot, to make the exposure count, rather than “spray and pray” then pick out the best and “fix it in Photoshop.” Make the photograph in the camera as much as possible. That has always been my philosophy and practice.
In what Flusser calls the gesture of photography, the act of making a photograph is a sequence of events during which the photographer overcomes several barriers or hurdles. At each barrier (what subject to choose, composition to select, settings to use, can my camera record this scene as I envision it, should I ask for permission?…) there is a hesitation. Each hesitation is an opportunity for doubt and an interruption of concentration, awareness, and flow. Photographing is a start-stop process, especially when first learning photography. Experience removes some of the doubt, some of the hesitation, but not all. At some point we have to make the decision when to press the shutter. Because of the multitude of choices available when selecting and composing a photograph, there is no real “decisive moment,” except in the mind and intent of the photographer. Cartier-Bresson even points out the photographer needs to stay with the moment, even after thinking the strongest image has been made; to keep shooting in case something else develops with that particular situation. But to avoid “shooting like a machine-gunner” which produces needless waste and exactness about the portrayal of the event, all the while remembering there are no do-overs.
The act of photographing, the gesture, is the experience, the journey, the discovery by the photographer in researching the subject, traveling (near or far), the personal growth inherent in exploring new places, meeting new people, encountering and working through challenges, fears, and biases, and the satisfaction of the learning process, whether you achieve your intent or not. I think we learn at least a little more from not meeting expectations than from our successes, though arguments can be made for the opposite. The process of photography, for me, is a mechanism to living a Way of Life, a way of experiencing the world and interpreting it; not necessarily interpreting it for you (which is something I once told people as a bit of a conceit and marketing ploy – as if I somehow had a better sense of what you needed to know or see better than you did) but interpreting the world for me. The journey, for me, is at least as important as the destination, because the destination is a moving target. I doubt I’ll ever reach it, or even discover what that destination is. My process of photographing, the way I think about it, approach making photographs, how I see the world, is different than yours. There might be similarities, but they aren’t exactly alike and can be very different. That’s great. Diversity makes life interesting. I like to share my journey and for those who want to come along, in person or through my photographs, I welcome you.