You Don’t Take Pictures, The Good Ones Happen To You
In case you missed it (and there might be one or two of you), there was a little bit of news this week about the new Nikon Df camera. Depending on your view, this news was either awfully astounding or astoundingly awful. Whether you love or hate the idea of the Df, I can’t help but feel that arguing it’s pro’s/con’s is sort of missing the entire point. “Pure photography” isn’t about a camera. If you really want to make better images, focusing on learning to improve how we see is all that really matters.
Let me just preface this article with a quick statement about our camera gear. It is critical to capture what we see, it improves all the time at an exponential rate and it’s never been a more accessible time to be a photographer or get into photography due to the high quality, affordable camera gear available. The Df might be the best camera in years, but I just don’t care about that right now, and I don’t think you should think too much about it either. Here’s why:
“The camera doesn’t make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But, you have to see.” Ernst Haas
The title of this article (“You Don’t Take Pictures, The Good Ones Happen To You”) is another quote by Haas who really underlines the importance of being open to seeing, and not worrying so much about the tools we use to capture what we see. This article is not about the Nikon Df, but it is aimed at trying to understand what “pure photography” really means, and to try to tap into it – not through new camera gear, but in terms of how we see, and by virtue, what and how we shoot.
The marketing for the Df was genius – it was trying to get us to remember what it was like when we held our very first camera. But if we really want to get back to “pure photography” (I’m still not entirely sure what that phrase actually means), we should probably try to think back to the photo that compelled us to want to pick up a camera – any camera – in the first place, not the camera itself. Sure, some of us were probably intrigued by the technical aspects of the camera and how it operated, but if you are still shooting years later, I’ll bet you my bottom dollar that you’re still in if because of an ongoing love (or obsession) with image making and the images themselves.
Gesture – a single, elusive word that best describes the essence of the most compelling images, the ones that make me sit up and take notice. Gesture is generally associated with the movement of part of the body, usually our hands. If we dig a little deeper though, gesture is something we can see all around us. What is gesture, and why is seeing it and capturing it so much more powerful (and important) than getting your hands on any new camera?
Gesture is something I was discussing with a friend and fellow photographer, Brent Eysler. He and I both enjoy street photography, and I think the reason is we are both drawn to it is because of the possibility of happening across random serendipitous acts of gesture in the streets, and trying to capture these in a meaningful, impactful way. Gesture is interesting because it provides a window into something we rarely see for more than a split second. It’s also interesting because being able to capture gesture is what most of the best photographers have in common, certainly those who photograph people.
I just finished watching “A Day With Jay Maisel” on Kelby Training and can highly recommend it to anyone looking to better understand this topic area. For those of you who don’t know of Jay, he’s one of those people who, through years of daily practice, can truly see (you’ll get a flavor for him in the video below). Jay started shooting back in the 50s, and continues to shoot today with the same voracious appetite he had when he started. He’s also someone who teaches others more than just the technical aspects of photography – he tries to teach people how to see.
The interesting thing about Jay is that he comes across as what people might call a ‘generalist’. One moment he is taking shots of people, the next he is shooting buildings, a landscape, pigeons flying in the sky, reflections. What ties all of these things together is how he sees light, color and, I would argue most importantly, gesture. We all pull up a viewfinder and look through it, but what does it mean to actually see what we are shooting?
Gesture is, I think, something that connects so many of Jay’s photographs together. Although gesture is usually described as a movement, typically with the hands, I think we can just as easily say it’s a look that stirs an emotion of something we see unfolding. Gesture can be movement or something relatively static, but it has to move something within us.
Gesture is really not easy to define but it’s often so evident in the work of other great photographers. Cartier Bresson’s “decisive moment” was when he felt the highest point of convergence between the geometric design in his frame lines and the gesture of his subject(s). What is in a gesture that makes it compelling? What gesture should we be looking for? These are questions open to interpretation but one thing is certain – being able to see and anticipate gesture goes a long way to making for a stronger image.
The images in this article all hopefully convey something simple and consistent – the subtle gesture of the subject in the frame, whether its in the eyes, the shape or form, or the relationship to their environment (or all of these and more), captured in a split moment, that makes us stop and take a second look. There is some form of connective tissue between the subject and the photographer, but also the viewer, that compels us to look more deeply at the image.
Isn’t this pure photography? Isn’t this what we should be focused on, trying to capture and anticipate what we are seeing, rather than worrying about what camera we might or might not be using to capture these moments?
It doesn’t really matter so much which camera we use, so long as we use something. If in any doubt, check out the article our own Douglas Sonders wrote this week highlighting the Digital Rev retrospective of their “Cheap Camera Challenge”, showing first hand the sorts of images great photographers can achieve regardless of what they might be shooting with).
Whatever you’re thoughts are on this (and I’d love to hear them in the comments), I guarantee that spending more time focused on learning how to anticipate and see gesture will improve your images immeasurably more than any new camera ever will.