I believe now more than ever in this beautiful craft. I love its democratic nature, I love the way it uses such elegant raw materials: light and time. I love the mechanics, and the way the cameras feel in my hands. And I adore the final print. In fact the moment I’m done writing this I’m going to run some overdue prints, just for the joy of seeing them emerge in the real world in dark black and graceful greys.
I believe we can experience photographs in a way that we don’t experience other mediums. They stick in a unique way. Or they can. But that stickiness isn’t innate. We have to put it there. And the tools to do so are not the camera and the lens, much as I love them.
The tools of the photographer are her language and not the camera itself.
I mentioned this in my last article, The End of What it Looks Like, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this between this post and the last. You know, we talk a lot about writing with light. It sounds poetic. But we talk so seldom about what we write and how we order the words to best say the thing we envision. We know our f/stops by memory, and we can talk for hours about the latest advances that make it easier than ever to make sharp and well-exposed images, but ask us about balance, tension, colour palettes, and other elements of the visual language and we’ll look at you like you just licked our sensor.
Our cameras are not our tools. The elements of the visual language are our tools. The craft of photography matters deeply and you need to know how to use the mechanics, but that’s just the price of admission. It is assumed that you will learn how to use the hardware. But using the hardware is not the same as saying something. It’s not, as I said, where the stickiness comes from. That comes from someplace deeper, and it comes only through the use of intangible tools like contrast, scale, repetition of elements, and the way we use the frame itself. It comes from how we create energy and mood and story. Your Nikon can’t do that. Only you can do that.
We will always have room to grow in terms of our craft. Over 30 years on and I am still finding new ways to use the fundamentals of the mechanics of this craft. But that is not the goal. The goal is more; it’s bigger. The goal is to learn every day to see in new ways and experience this world with wider eyes. It is to find new ways to express that, and new ways to tell stronger stories. So here is my challenge to you because it might be time someone told you: stop screwing around with your gear and start to learn the language. You’ve got something to say, I know you do.
Learn why the orientation and ratio of your frame helps tell your story. Learn how to use scale and proportion. Learn to tell stories. Learn about colour. The mechanics are the tools of craft, but the language is the tool of art. Get fascinated by that. Go to a gallery and learn about the visual arts. It might be intimidating, learning always is. But find out why Van Gogh did what he did, and why it worked. Pick up a book about Picasso and learn about his use of line and shape, or about Rothko and his use of colour. Or about graphic design. Buy a visual art or graphic design magazine next time you’re tempted to buy yet another photography magazine. How many Tamron ads can one person absorb, anyways? Consider studying my book Photographically Speaking, or Molly Bang’s Picture This, or Michael Freeman’s excellent book, The Photographer’s Eye.
You’re probably pretty good at focusing and exposing. You’ll always get better. Now it’s time to study the harder stuff. Who’s in?
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