blog, Blog post, Cameras, Generalism, Lincoln UK, Lincolnshire, PDBarton, Photo manipulation, photography, Pictures
Leave a Comment

The Generalist photographer

Post section headings


Recently I was asked to review a set of images by a photographer here in Lincoln. First of all, I should make it clear, though I was happy to oblige, this is not something I generally do because I don’t consider myself an expert. I’ve just taken a lot of pictures in my life, some of which I’ve liked and some have been liked by others. Perhaps that’s enough to give me the tools to comment? I don’t know.
What I do know, is that taking tens of thousands of pictures provides some opinion forming perspective.

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Reviewing the photographers images I could see strong similarities with my own trajectory through photography. My own labours and experiences reflected in her work. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a little and perhaps start from a different position.

GEARISM

First let’s get this out of the way. There is much talk, too much in fact, about gear. What camera, what lens, what film (if you use that medium), what tripod even, what camera bag… and the list goes on.

Remember. It’s not the gear which sees the picture it’s you.

I know, I know, that’s a cliche. Nevertheless it’s true. And yes I’ve been seduced in the past into thinking “better camera = better pictures”. Better (image) quality maybe, but Better Pictures. No.
Buying the latest gidget – and I have dozens of those littering my path to where I am – means nothing. If you want to understand that simple fact then look at the work of Daido Moriyama*. He uses a simple camera, no bag and…

...just a pair of legs to get him around and a pair of eyes to see.

I ask you:
What does stating what camera or lens you used to make a certain image add to its value or the viewers understand of it?

Does it add value to a Monet or a Paul Klee to know what brushes, paint or palette knife were used?

Do you really need to know where they bought their canvass  to appreciate what their images do for you?

Of course not, so why is it important to the dedicated amateur to know what equipment was used to make a Bill Brandt or a Nick Turpin image for example? It isn’t. With some people it’s as though photography is about cameras. It isn’t

All of this gear talk is just marketing. You are being SOLD TO. As was I. In truth, gearism still tugs at me – I like the mechanics, the aesthetics and the history of cameras you see – but the pull diminishes as the years pass.
I go out with one camera and one lens. That’s it. Try stripping back on what you carry.

* you can see a film about Moriyama here >>>

SIMPLE FACT

If you want to get better – however you define that – then go and see what other people do. Instead of gear, spend your money on photo-books.

Improve your eye by seeing the world through the eyes of others until your eye sees like theirs. Then develop a style of your own. It’s a learning process.

Do what they do, adapt it for yourself, then do it differently, and do it better.

WHAT TO TAKE A PICTURE OF?

All very well, you might say, but what do I take pictures of?
Photography is a broad church. Many people choose a single subject matter, landscapes for instance. When we start out  the majority of us are Photographic Generalists. What I mean by that is, we shoot whatever we see in front of us. If it stands still long enough or is in some way ’pretty’ we point a camera at it and make an image. We snap what appears in front of us. With the advent of digital cameras there is no film – developing – printing cost so what does it matter. We can shoot thousands of frames on cameras and phones with little or no cost, so we do. Whats more, modern cameras and phones handle all of the technical aspects of taking an image. It’s almost too easy to get a technically good shot, but a sharp, properly exposed image is not the be all and end all of photography. Take a look at Moriyama’s work again. It’s the antithesis of the accepted norm – but that’s what makes it.

It is estimated 1 trillion pictures were taken in 2018. That’s 1,000,000,000,000 or 1 million, million.
Estimate is from InfoTrends.


The vast majority of these are just reaction, personal type images, of little interest to anyone else but the snapper and their social media friends. Back to the 10,000 image quote – most of those 10,000 images will be trite and banal, but if you are serious, in there somewhere will be the germ of an idea, something which can be built on. It may be you develop a strong aptitude  for Architectural photography, or portraits of people, dogs even, whatever it is it will come out.
I argue, to be a generalist is no bad thing, at least at first. Photography for you will fast become not what you will take pictures of, but what you wont. You will develop what I call “extreme prejudice” which is where your eye edits the millions of images you see daily and rejects the vast majority, learning by experience and education (reading photo books) to be selective. Furthermore that becomes “your” selective. Your style if you like.

VISUAL AWARENESS

I suppose Visual Awareness is a short form for the contents of the previous paragraph. What is that? What is all this about “seeing”? For me it’s about shape, shading, layers and content, all of those, but rarely do they present themselves in front of us.
I have a strong belief, for me at least, photography is about seeing something in the visual world as it passes in front of me and extracting it to make it my impression of that moment. Do we just use the entire image straight out of the camera? I can only point to one of my images (Beach huts shown below) that I use straight out of camera. Untouched. No “printing” as I like to call it.  It is exactly as I saw it – more importantly it is exactly as I wanted to see it. 

And there’s the thing;

The image you finally produce is a modification – development – alteration, if you like, of what is actually in front of you. You make it into what you saw in your minds eye when you pressed the shutter.

You have to look at something and see what it is you want that image to look like. What it is and what you want it to look like are very, very rarely the same thing.

DARK ROOM PRINTING

Many old hands used a darkroom to print their monochrome – even colour – images. Like me, they spent many hours developing their negatives and printing their images, using dodging and burning and other techniques to get the prints to look like what they saw in their minds eye when they shot them.

Photoshop and the like has long since taken over this process, though some do still stick to wet darkrooms, and god bless ’em.
I believe the experience one gets from working in a wet darkroom provides a firm foundation for image manipulation. I’m often amused by people decrying Photoshop for its ability to manipulate images, saying it is somehow unworthy. Take a look a the famous image of James Dean in Times Square below for example and look at how the printer produced this image from the original negative whilst in the printing process. It’s a huge manipulation.
I do very little in Photoshop I wasn’t able to do in the darkroom.

Photoshop is just a dry darkroom with bells on.

You can see the James Dean in New York image and how the master printer made it what it is by using wet darkroom techniques here >>>

Time spent in a darkroom is never wasted.

WHO IS IT FOR?

Ask yourself. Who is my work for? Do you want to sell it? Do you want to make books? Is your work for digital social media? Is it for friends and family?

I suggest, primarily, your work is for you. It really doesn’t matter what other people think. It’s your baby. It might be handsome or ugly, but it’s all yours, and that is ultimately what matters.

It might be chocolate box, it might be gritty street, it might be documentary, it might be landscape or portraiture  – irrelevant. It’s yours. Put it up around the house. Make your own greeting cards from it. Give it to friends, yes, even exhibit it if you like.

MOVE AWAY FROM GENERALISM

Eventually, when your own version of the visual world develops and you know what you want to say with your pictures, you can move away from simply pressing the shutter on EVERYTHING, as it were. Reduce the generalism approach and practice being selective.
You will start to construct images, as opposed to being reactive towards what passes in front of you. Here’s where reading photo-books comes in again; look at images and try to work out how the image was made, for example look closely at portraits and see where the catchlights are in the eyes. Work out the lighting the photographer used then experiment. Start to understand the geometry of the images – what goes where and what looks better. Remember though, it’s all subjective.

IT TAKES TIME

Have patience. I have 50,000** images or so on file and many more in boxes and files. One day I might get good at it. Ahhh…one day.

**and that’s not many by todays standards.

BACK TO THAT REVIEW

As I’ve said the photographers work reminded me very much of where I was a while back. Lovely images of the things she clearly loves – and there is nothing wrong with that. But, if you want more then you have to see differently, as I have tried to make clear above.

So, what I would say to her is…
“You take a good technical picture. If you wish to develop, you now need to build on that technical competence, stretch it, add to it and use those new skills to produce something fresh which talks about what you want to say”.

If that’s not what you want, fine. As I say, photography is a broad church.

PDBarton
Lincoln 2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s