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Back to the Basics of Photography


By Charlotte Lowrie

Reflect for awhile on how much photography has changed in the past decade. In the late 1990s, photographers could buy a top-flight camera, a few lenses, and some film for several thousand dollars. At the end of the day, the photographer had all that he or she needed to satisfy that restless urge to create.

By contrast, today, a top-flight digital camera, a few lenses and memory cards costs anywhere from twice to three times as much as it did 10 years ago. And unlike the photographer of the ‘90s, today’s digital SLR is virtually guaranteed to become obsolete in one, three, or four years. Ten years ago, the argument was that a photographer would save the increased cost of the digital gear in film and film processing costs. The argument was a stretch then, and it is a fantasy now. And, of course, none of the costs that I’ve mentioned factor in the additional cost of computers, hard drives for image storage, and imaging software. Colorful mountain sunrise

Head, Heart, and Eye

But the larger change, in my opinion, is a change in focus. The steep technical learning curve often tends to shift the focus from creating interesting images to learning how to calibrate a computer monitor, understanding gamma conversions and chromatic aberration, and taming digital noise. All of these and more are important aspects of digital photography to be sure, but I would argue that they hardly creatively satisfying.

I recently began reading The Education of a Photographer, edited by Charles H. Traub, Steven Heller, and Adam B. Bell. In this collection of essays, venerable photographers talk about making images, images made with a creative eye; images that satisfy the essential urge to create, and images that concentrate on content rather than on technical details.

Instead of bits and bytes, these photographers talk about head, heart, and eye, vigor and richness, and scene selection that makes a penetrating statement and that hits you with impact and excites the imagination. For example, in a 1951 magazine article, Berenice Abbott, says, “Selection of proper picture content comes from a fine union of trained eye and imaginative mind.”

She argues persuasively that the photographer’s eye is only as good as the philosophy behind it. She also argues that photographs must be directly related to the world in which we live. Henri Cartier-Bresson agreed and related our connectedness with the world to the concept of the photographic “subject.” “So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel,” Cartier-Bresson said. “We see and show the world around us, but it is an event itself which provokes the organic rhythm of forms.”

Woman in restaurant with large screen TVMinor White recognized the link between art and science. But he concentrated on the creative opportunities. “…the camera lures, then compels, a man to create through seeing. It demands that he learn to make the realm of his responses to the world the raw material of his creative activity.”

White reminds photographers about the creative process itself. It is for the photographer as it is for the writer. Either a blank sheet of film or a blank sheet of white paper that with the first scene or word, takes on a life of its own. “One feels, one sees on the ground glass into a world beyond surfaces,” White says. “The square of glass becomes like the words of a prayer or poem, like the fingers or rockets into two infinites—one into the subconscious and the other into the visual-tactile universe.”

And art director Alexey Brodovitch provides yet another point of view. He contends that a good picture is one that “stimulates my thinking and intrigues me.” And if photographers want their images to command attention, Brodovitch, reminds us that, “It is every photographer’s responsibility to discover new images and a new personal way of looking at things.”

And that, after all the digital gear has been purchased and learned, is the reason we make images. Not to master technologies, but rather, to express how we see the world on our own terms and through our own eyes.

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About the author: Charlotte Lowrie is an award-winning freelance journalist and photographer based in Seattle. She is the author of 14 photography books, numerous magazine articles, and she teaches photography classes at BetterPhoto.com.

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Contact: charlotte@wordsandphotos.org