Making Photographs & Magic

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Vision Is Better by David47 Comments

When I was 14 I picked up a camera at a neighbour’s garage sale, a little Voigtlander rangefinder that changed my life. Quickly I wanted what we all want at the beginning – more control, more lenses, more gear. My mother gave me a Pentax Spotmatic and a gadget back full of stuff, acquired from a co-worker who had recently lost her father to whom all this belonged, along with a gigantic and aging Linhoff tripod that collapsed on its own whim, often pinching my fingers or sending my camera to the ground. My God I loved that thing.

I loved looking through the viewfinder and allowing the frame to make sense of the world, to bring some order to things. I loved the alternate way of seeing things. Spurred on by Freeman Patterson’s books and a pile of old PhotoLife magazines, I learned my craft, always with this inescapable sense of mystery, curiosity, and excitement. When I started developing my own negs and printing my own work, eventually in my own darkroom, that excitement was accompanied by some heady, indescribable magic. It might have been the chemicals.

I had friends in a band. I photographed them. I went for walks with my massive tripod and a used Soligor 400mm lens that was, at it’s fastest, an f/8. But I insisted on using it with a 2x teleconverter because if there’s one thing better than a boring photograph of a duck, it’s a boring photograph of a duck that’s twice as large in the frame. I didn’t care. It was magic. All of it. I photographed when I could. I made hundreds, and later thousands of truly bad photographs. It was still magic.

Fall colours blaze across Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada.

Fall colours blaze across Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada.

And not once did it concern me whether I fit someone’s definition of what a photographer was or was not. I was too busy with the magic of making photographs.
Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada.

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada.

So when I see clever posts on Facebook or the blogs of other photographers, defining what is and is not a photographer, and who does and doesn’t get to experience the magic, my heart sinks a little bit. I got into this to make photographs, not make distinctions.

The world is full of people trying to do what they love, and some of them, like I was at the beginning, are doing it in stops and starts. They’re making some truly bad photographs with hand-me-down gear and tripods we snicker at. And some of them will, one day, make photographs that amaze me. Almost two years ago I gave a presentation at a weekend conference in New Brunswick, and standing in the front row with hundreds of others, giving me a standing ovation, was Freeman Patterson, a man who is still my hero as much for his photography as for his humanity. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about that moment. I’m still just making a lot of really bad photographs. I do that to get to the few really good ones. I’m glad I didn’t stop when others snickered at my gear. I’m glad there was no internet, no Facebook, and no clamouring voices discouraging me at the time.

We don’t get to decide who is and who isn’t. We get to decide if we are, and having made that decision, to go make photographs, to feel the joy of creation.”

Amateurs, don’t listen to the voices that tell you you’re not a so-called real photographer. Find voices you can respect as much for their humanity as you can for their art, because they’re connected. “Ridicule,” I’ve read somewhere, “is a terrible witherer of the imagination. It binds us where we should be free.” That applies to both those who listen to it and those from whom it comes. Go find the magic, wherever you can. Make the thing that gives you joy, and in the way that fills your imagination. Don’t worry about whether they call you a photographer or not. It’s not what they do or don’t call you, it’s what you make. What you give back. In the end it’ll be the people that show us a new way of seeing the world that get our attention. And seeing the world based on who’s in and who’s out, who is and who isn’t – that’s the oldest way of seeing the world. There are better ways to inspire beauty and magic.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I am about 3 years into learning to be a better photographer, some classes, reading, 100,000 photos taken. This article and many others that you have shared help me to keep trying, so that every so often, I can see the magic in one of my photos and I know it is good. No one has to tell me. I can feel it. And when I get that little fave on Flickr if I post that photo from somebody that is not known to me because my photo spoke to them, then I know the journey and learning is working. I don’t listen well, so I keep going and learning, shooting and sharing my world.

  2. I have been photographing seriously for about four years now…I photograph practically every day and that has done more for my photography than any reading or classes could ever do for me. But I really struggled as to when I could call myself a photographer. (And I don’t do this for money or for anyone else…just for my own pleasure and learning.) It took a few years and I couldn’t tell you when I started believing in myself and calling myself a photographer, but now reading this article oh how I wish I could have read these words several years ago. Would it have changed anything about my photography? Don’t think so…but would have eliminated a lot of time internalizing something I didn’t need to spend one second thinking about. As always..THANK YOU. Now I’m off to chase more magic.

  3. This brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know much of your professional bio, just that I love your pictures and appreciate the ebooks. I am still and maybe will always be the photographer with 1000 or more bad shots for every keeper, but I can look at my old photos, even the bad ones, and remember where I was and how I felt and how time stood still. When i first started reading and looking for photographers who touch my heart I found Freeman Patterson’s books and I turn to them again and again. So I was delighted that you mentioned him.

  4. Wow! Did I need to hear this right now! I’m trying to pull myself out of a funk that has a lot to do with how I allow others to affect my self esteem. I get especially irritated (and hurt) when I see some yoyo using amateur and beginner interchangeably. I’m going to use your words here as a daily must read to help get myself back on track doing what I love. Thank you, David!

  5. Great piece of writing. Your article brought back a flood of memories. Not everyone encourages the new photographer. I was nine when an uncle put his camera in my hands and told me to just start clicking. The moment came just about the time my dad was informed he was legally blind, so I’ve always known vision was a gift. Thankfully, I met a lot of nice people who didn’t make fun of the little girl with a camera (and usually no film) who called herself a photographer. While there were a few naysayers, it is the kind people I remember with fondness. Today it is so much easier for both kids and adults to make wonderful images. And, I hope anyone whose heart beats faster when they make pictures comes across your path. Even after decades of creating pics, I love to read encouraging words like yours. Keep up the good work.

  6. Luckily when starting out I wasn’t ridiculed (in person anyways) … had I been ridiculed I probably would’ve quit, or not pursed my passions as hard as I have. Your post touched me on a personal level and gave me a chance to reflect and be thankful for where I am and where I’ve come from. There are so many talented new “vision mongers” out there, that, if only given a chance to flourish would create some wonderful work. Thank you for being that voice.

  7. Thank you for this inspirational piece of writing David. It is reassuring to read that someone so accomplished as you are started out much the same way I have and have taken their fair share of bad photos along the way. I will probably continue to make my fair share of bad photos, but I am continuing to practice the craft of photography and trying new techniques. I continue making photos all in the hopes that I will create a photo that makes an emotional connection with someone viewing it. Thanks once again.

  8. Inspirational!
    I continue to make my share of bad photos.
    Hopefully, a few good ones will emerge in time that will evoke emotion or thought.
    Excellent post David!

  9. I think every photographer should read this post before starting making photography, this is so true !

    You shall contact gear brands to put this text into the prelude their manual 😀

    Glad i found this article and blog, made my day !

  10. You continue to inspire David, so well said, honesty cuts through to the truth and you speak from the heart. All of us out here appreciate that so much. There is so much fluffy nonsense posing as art speak, it’s refreshing and a relief to hear someone say it as it is.
    I have been teaching and photographing for 40 years and also had a second hand Voigtlander rangefinder then a Pentax KX and am still taking a lot of ordinary photos to get a few good ones, the passion has never died – the excellence comes with very selective and ruthless editing!
    I love your blog, have not enjoyed another photographers writing so much for years. You are a wonderful and accessible teacher to so many sensitive and talented people out there.
    Go David!

  11. Hey David,

    Looking at your wonderful photographs of fall colors makes this “photographer” long for Autumn! Summer in the high plains is not for the faint of heart.

    Great post, words spoken from experience are so so valuable to those of us that look to you for guidance and inspiration.

    Thank you!

    Craig

  12. I have read many posts over the years with similar sentiment to the point where they are starting to become cliché. I am sure this is not the intent but over used ideas, phrases, and opinions just end up in that type of realm.

    Making art may seem to be magical possible to the viewer but I don’t believe the creator should see it as such. It is not magical to do what you have an uncontrollable desire to do; in fact it can almost be a form of neurosis. Many if not most times something of the unknown must always be the motivation. This does not just happen in the creation of art, but in the living of a good life and the quest for something greater rather than merely existing. This quest does not happen just by happenstance or the wave of a magic wand, it is purpose driven with ambitions, desires, goals, and lots of hard work.

    I don’t believe it is enough to just say; “Go find the magic, wherever you can. Make the thing that gives you joy, and in the way that fills your imagination. Don’t worry about whether they call you a photographer or not. It’s not what they do or don’t call you, it’s what you make.”

    This seems to leave a gaping hole in the formation and creation of art. It really isn’t magic and to portray it as such diminishes the very act. As mentioned, it is like living a good live, purpose driven with ambitions, desires, goals, and lots of hard work.

    1. Author

      Brad – Sorry we seem to disagree, but I think you’re taking my words out of context of my broader teaching. I don’t ever suggest this stuff happens by magic. But if you don’t feel the magic, it might be time to do something else. If you’ve read more of my writing you know I believe the only way to access that is hard work. If you’ve not read it, I can see how this passes as cliche, though I’m saddened by anyone who won’t move past what something seems to say and to find the substance beneath. I invite you to read a fuller selection of my work, as I suspect we’re on very much the same page about much of this.

      1. David – I appreciate your reply. It seems to be in my nature that when a point is brought to light I almost instinctively see it from various angles. I have read much of work as I have followed it for a few years now. Even though I (and somewhat intentionally) brought up concern and yes possibly disagreement with the “magic” that is involved in the creation of art (as I put it) I do so from the side of discourse and not disrespect.

        My concern stems from the wondering if their are truly great artists out there somewhere that may inspire the world with their work but they are waiting for that “magic” to happen instead of, as put in Steven Pressfield’s book “Do The Work”, doing their work. I actually think that when “the magic” happens a truly creative person will be to consumed with creating (working) to even notice “the magic”. It always seems to be in hindsight it is realized.

        I do understand the context of the writting and the confluence of magic happening vs. magic felt. Maybe a little tit-for tat thing on my part but duly understood. Please remember it must have had some impact upon me to the point it facilitated additional thoughts on the subject. This is always a good thing and one that I personally appreciate.
        It seems many who love and inspire to the creative life do so from many different angles which ultimately lead to the same single point, to live a life to the fullest. Thank you for forcing me to dive just a little deeper into my own psyche on this subject and for having a place to voice my opinion and the respectful patience to listen to them.

        1. Author

          You’re always welcome here, Brad. Much less important that we agree than it is that we think and talk and honour the questions. 🙂

  13. Fantastic sentiment David, there seems to be a lot of negativity in the photographic world at times, and if everyone listened to it and just gave up imagine all the fantastic photographers that are out there that either would not have been or will not be!

  14. Whenever I’m drifting towards gear lust and feeling down when I start to compare myself with others, I head to your blog and read any one of your blogposts and they inspire me and bring me back to senses. Thank you for being a mentor!

  15. A great post, amusing and humble reflections. Wonderful writing as ever😊

    Photography of the diverse landscapes of our world is something to be relished…. a life-long journey of personal discovery, contemplation and reflection. I look back on the thousands of photos I made on my old automatics and a handful of them still make me smile. When I decided I wanted to learn how to use a manual camera I had some very encouraging and supportive tutoring from a great photographer I know. I made another few thousand images and started to get more pleasing results. 6 years later and she know has a few of my prints, which still seems pleasantly crazy!

    I now run workshops occasionally and really enjoy helping others to learn to see (rather than just ‘look’) at what surrounds them, to help facilitate them to use the camera to distill the essence of that time & place, to immerse their senses, to feel the magic of it all. It helps me to realise that I too will never stop learning, or experimenting from time to time and that I will still make many more duff photos as well as a few keepers.

  16. this post really resonates will me because I feel like recently I have come full circle and back to the place where I am making images because it makes me happy and post-processing them how I want to and how I see things, not how I think others want or expect they should be seen.

  17. Thanks for that David. Your writing never fails to inspire.

    Sometimes photography can seem like a competitive sport!

    Cheers!

  18. That had to be an amazing moment seeing one of your major inspirations give you props! It truly is magic, whether making bad or good images. It puts me in a better place than the ridiculous pace of regular work and life! Thanks for helping make it that way David! Great stuff!

  19. I loved hearing your story. It made me feel so good hearing what you said about not believing the distinctions. I love to take pictures, good and bad ones too. I didn’t feel alone and that I have you to thank. Peace and love to you.

  20. Another incredible, uplifting, encouraging, inspiring piece of writing. I wonder if you’ve ever read a book called “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. He talks about the difference between “trying” to make good music (he’s an amazing musician), and simply “allowing” the music to flow through you. When we stop trying and just allow is when the magic happens in my experience, whether it’s music or a photograph,….and that concept seems to be completely contrary to everything we are taught in Western culture. Your essay also reminds me of a quote I love: “the act of creating and the act of judging are mutually exclusive!” I believe this was by Rodin. And one more great one pertinent to what you’ve expressed so well: ““The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” ~Robert Henri

  21. Great post, over the year I am trying to bring the magic back into my images as much as I can, I have found a lot of ground from slowing down, shooting with an older 35mm camera and making my own scans at home. I am focusing on mood and story and less on ‘pixel polish’ .

    I like your site redesign, I updated my site to the x ethos theme and I find it to be very flexible.

  22. thank you for reminding me why I do take all the photographs….magic. That says it all to me.

  23. I love this article. It applies to so many different things in life. Thanks for the reminder David!

  24. And you are brilliant Mary , I love the magic you capture and how it captures my heart and imagination!

  25. I enjoy, and look forward to, the time I spend alone with my camera – it is a conduit to presence and the beauty and wonder that emerges when we are together.

    In a podcast I listened to last night , Roshi Joan Halifax spoke of how she woke up blind at the age of four – and how that helped her to discover and explore her Inner World. She regained her sight two years later, and her Dad gave her a camera as a gift. This comment she made struck me as a truth I hold in my own heart, “… I started taking photographs and it’s been a life long joy for me. It’s not being about being a photographer, but it was about seeing inside.”

    Thank you David, I love when magical moments meet me – it’s humbling and makes my heart sing.

  26. Your words are such balm to the heart of one who sometimes struggles with this issue. And the sad thing is that it isn’t even the *other* photographers who say things about me. It’s me comparing myself and coming up short. But I am always so encouraged when I read your posts and they go a long way towards helping me out of this dreadful trap I walk into. Thank you for continuing to share your wonderful thoughts.

  27. Hello David. Today I could not resist commenting… You do have a talent with words. Thank you for such candour, emotion and sense of humour! Ah, almost forgot: and beautiful, beautiful, photos 🙂

  28. This article reminded me of my own introduction into the world of photographic critics. When I was nine in the seventies, my now passed grandfather took me along to his photographic club in the north of England. It was held in a slightly run down, formerly white wooden cricket club building and had a mixed membership with varied interests, expertise and equipment. Each month would be competition night when members would be encouraged to enter mounted prints that would be critiqued and scored by the lead member of the club who had Royal Photographic Society membership and shot with Hasselblad and Bronica quarter frame film cameras. Everyone else had more humble equipment (not that you would have known given their entries). To this day I am still amazed that anyone bothered to enter the competition. Stunning work would be ‘assessed’ and ridiculed with a sarcastic manner that said more about the judge than the quality of the entries. Trolls aren’t a new phenomenon, it’s just the way that we meet and communicate that has changed.

  29. Hello, David
    your article felt ravishing, bringing altogether the memories of my very first black and white film photographs, I used to take with my father’s very old Agfa Folding camera. I was only a small child than, and this was in a place and time where buying a modern camera was a luxury few could afford. I got my new camera with the money I got in University as a prize for a research paper. It was a Leica camera, also film, also black and white, but with modern then functionality and design. And YES, it was a magical world when I was looking through the viewfinder.

    The feeling stayed with me and it doesn’t matter I using a mirror-less camera today, I still consider myself an amateur but it doesn’t matter, I still feel the wonder of the moment when I press the shutter and capture an unique moment in time.

    Thank you so much for sharing with us your memories, feelings, experience … your own world!

  30. Well said David! Sometimes we all need to step back and remember why we started shooting in the first place. It’s easy to lose sight of that after you pass the innocent beginner stage and head into the trenches.

  31. Great words of wisdom.
    It has been said that your first 10000 photos are your worst. I want to start making good ones now. With the help of you and C + V it will be much easier!
    Thank you, David

  32. I agree with your points. What’s more, high school can be really tough
    for children.

    In a few cases they even genuinely feel suicidal.

    As long as they truly had a choice, they would become so much more
    happy. As opposed to being made to go on attending, they should be in a position to opt to stop.

    I wish that each and every parent could understand
    exactly how detrimental it really is to their teenagers!

  33. Hello,

    “I’m glad there was no internet, no Facebook, and no clamouring voices discouraging me at the time.”

    This is what struggles me. After two years of renovating my house I picked up my camera’s again (I missed it), even bought an Fuji X100T because of all the good things I read about it and its size (light weighted, easy to carry around). So at the moments I’m trying to get back ‘in the mood/flow’ by reading as much as I can on the internet, watching videos, websites, blogs…. . But when you cross photos on 500px, Instagram…. with hundreds of wonderfull photos I feel that besides my joy of taking photos I cannot compete. It’s discouraging me by moments. Any thoughts about that? I hope I made myself clear because English is not my native language.

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