Apologies, dear blog followers, for the period of silence. I took myself off to Rhodes for a week of R&R. Making a conscious decision to not leave the hotel/villa/spa complex, the photographic opportunities were limited. This was fine, expected.
But the week off was not a waste, photographically, such was the impact I felt from reading two books: “On Being A Photographer” by David Hurn and Bill Jay, and “Letting Go of the Camera” by Brooks Jensen.
I’ve known of David Hurn, a Fine Welsh Magnum Photographer (putting him in the company of Philip Jones Griffiths, the only Magnum member to be born in Wales), for a good while. The man takes wonderful photographs. What I wasn’t aware of was his great photography brain and his uncanny verbal abilities in simply communicating some very insightful observations and philosophies. “On Being a Photographer” takes the form of a multi-chapter dialogue between Hurn and Bill Jay, providing excellent advice on very practical topics such as: “Selecting a Subject”, “The Picture Essay” and “Cameras, Shoes and Other Essentials”. After writing about contact sheets in my post “Contact Sheets are Good and Good For You, William Klein” I found the chapter “Creating Contacts” especially enjoyable. Hurn can explain the contact sheet’s positive effects (no pun intended) on the shooting process far better than I ever could. Jay’s contribution cannot be overestimated here; his role is far more than that of a simple interviewer. Their conversations are very natural, and they obviously share similar views on photography, but Hurn isn’t afraid to bluntly dismiss Jay’s analogies straight off when they veer too wildly from the mark.
“Letting Go of the Camera” is an anthology of essays by LensWork Editor Brooks Jensen, with the subtitle: “Essays on Photography and the Creative Life “. Jensen has a delightful self-deprecating style, and the essays are punchy and though-provoking. There is some common ground with the topics covered in “On Being a Photographer”, with essays on: “The Matter with Subject Matter”, “What is Your Natural Vision” and “When It Becomes a Project”. A personal favourite was “Image & Idea”, a fine piece that refutes the notion a successful image can be a pure visual artefact and experience.
Reading these two I found myself using the highlighting functionality of my Kindle more than I have done in all my previously read e-books combined. If there is one key takeaway from Hurn’s book, it is his insistence that the subject of a photograph (and especially a series of photos or a project) must be selected on more than visual appeal alone: “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.” And helpfully, he provides a checklist for determining whether a subject is suitable or not: Is it visual? Is it practical? Is it a subject about which I know enough? Is it interesting to others?
Jensen’s book’s main themes explore the facets of creativity and productivity within the craft of photography. On these themes he is very quotable, take for example: “Simply said, the creation of art passes into a different plane when it ceases to be focused on self and instead starts focusing on Self”, and “If you want to become a better photographer, become a more practiced observer and then get out of your way.” He cites American landscape photographers often, and is fond of the occasional Ansel Adams anecdote: “When Ansel Adams told us that in a good year he might produce 10 good photographs, maybe he was giving us advice to slow down. We misunderstood and thought he was telling us to expose even more film to increase the odds of success. Seeing takes time. Photographing takes time. Printing takes time. Fortunately, time is doled-out to us equally every day, equally for every one of us. Maybe the great lesson that is presented to us everyday is that there will never be time for photography, but there is always time for life. When we find a way to make photography fit our life, we’ll have time for photography. Perhaps we’d best learn this before our time for life runs out.”
It’s so nice to find some writing on photography that gets the grey matter working, but is readable enough to enjoy at length while lounging next to the pool in the sun. I found myself pausing often, not because I had to reread some oblique, self-aggrandising and pompous sentence (as I’ve encountered too often in photography essays), but because the ideas had such impact and were so clearly presented.
LensWork books can be found in print-on-demand and digital form here.