The Photographer’s Role

In The Craft, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David21 Comments

It comforts me to know I’m not a lone nutter standing on the edge of sanity shouting into the wind. In fact it turns out there’s really nothing about what I teach that better voices before mine have not taught. My voice is just an echo, but it echoes something I think is important – that this craft is a human pursuit and it is the human behind the camera that will make our photographs what they are.

How we see is more important than what we see. Why we press the shutter button, to paraphrase Mary Ellen Mark, is more important than when we press it (though that too is important). Here are some of those voices, all of them pointing with reverence to the photographer’s role in picture-making (conveniently that’s all the sub-title of my new book, The Soul of the Camera)

“All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.” ~ Elliott Erwitt

“It’s the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.” ~ Eve Arnold

“When people ask what equipment I use, I tell them my eyes.” ~ Ansel Adams

“I realize more and more what it takes to be a really good photographer. You go in over your head, not just up to your neck.” ~ Dorothea Lange

“Artists are controlled by the life that beats in them, like the ocean beats on the shore.” ~ Dorothea Lange

“Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.” – Walker Evans

“Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” ~ Walker Evans

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” ~ Ansel Adams

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!” ~ Ansel Adams

“Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film.” ~ Ansel Adams

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” ~ Ansel Adams

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” ~ Ansel Adams

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” ~ Ansel Adams


If you like these and resonate with them, you’re going to love Soul of the Camera, a beautiful black and white hardcover that explores the role of the photographer in making images. You can find more information here, including downloadable sample chapters, a new audio interview with me, reviews from those that had a chance to read it before it hit the shelves, and links to Amazon, etc., so you can get your hands on your own copy.

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  2. That’s an wonderful piece of art! I really fallen in love with the quotes you have shared because without a photographer photos cannot be seen even though if you have a high definition camera on your side.

  3. I am so inspired by your work and beliefs about photography. You are forcing me to slow down and consider more about making the image (considering all of the technical aspects, etc.) as opposed to taking the picture, as well as working to find images that tell a story. It’s also refreshing to know that I’m not the only one who uses the word nutter!

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  5. Wonderful collection of quotes about photographers, which implies the ability of the photographers. Especially I love, “When people ask what equipment I use, I tell them my eyes.” ~ Ansel Adams.

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  8. Whoops, should have read Cory’s comment. And yes, interesting doesn’t mean to me, more bizarre. It means to be more deeply involved with this crazy, beautiful world and universe, in which we find ourselves, not really knowing why, what or how… being a participant and not a bystander.

  9. I could not resist adding one more quote: 😉

    “If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.” – Jay Maisel

    I think all creatives, at one time or another feel like a “lone nutter!”

  10. David,

    I spent the weekend with art at The Met. The museum is only out shined as a place to people watch by the New York subway and the airport (every airport). Some times I wondered if there was a costume party I was missing. The periodic display of outlandish clothing got me thinking about the oft cited story of Jay Maisel responding to a student’s inquiry on making her photographs more interesting. It’s fun to smile wryly at the quick witted response, but I started wondering what she actually did with the bit of fortune cookie wisdom, be a more interesting person.

    Did she dye her hair my little pony pink, triple up on her eye makeup, speak about herself in the third person, don a WWII era pistol belt with authentic lead lined canteen as fashion statement of defiance? Would pedestrians jay-walking Broadway Avenue turn their heads to get a second look at this interesting person before she descends the subway stairs?

    Interest is a tricky word in English: a verb, an action word of doing; a noun, an act of being; an adjective, naming an attribute; an adverb qualifying an adjective. Whew, that is a contortionists word. Some times interest is used in a way that makes it seem people can radiate interest by sheer act of will, a self glitzing disco ball that makes every room more fun when present. Interest is a more useful word when it notes the attractive pull, the magnetism, people feel toward other people, wanting to know them better.

    Perhaps the next semester, when her natural hair color grew in, eye shadow dried up, third person just got too confusing when signing up for classes, and the lead lined canteen began to taste bitter, she dropped a few art classes, and instead took up French, opening up a new world she never knew was present, signed up for a summer abroad program in French speaking Ivory Coast, learned the history of the people, became savvy on current events, and found a way to contribute using her camera. That would be interesting.

    Cory MacNeil

    1. Author

      Hey Cory – I guess it all depends on how we interpret “interesting” but I don’t think a word study is going to clarify Maisel’s comment. I think he’s pointing to something deeper. He’s pointing to the idea that photographs come from photographers. Want deeper images? You had better be willing to be a deeper person – because the image comes from us.

  11. Hi David — Is your interview with Jeffery Saddoris available anywhere else but on your new book’s website page? In podcast form somewhere? Looking forward to hearing it.

    1. Author

      Hi Stephen – It’s not. Did you run into a problem with downloading it from If you can help me better understand what it is you need, I can make it happen. I wouldn’t want you to miss out. Let me know.

      1. Thanks, no, I can do it via download or stream. Just trying to make the round peg fit most expeditiously into the square mobile hole of a certain “intuitive” OS. (Also wondered if Jeffery would have it as part of his “Process Driven” lineup.) Thanks for checking back!

  12. Congratulations David on shipping the new book. The camera in my pocket let me know it arrived at my door earlier today and I’m anxious to breathe in the wisdom and inspiration.

    Reading a little of the sample chapters had me realizing that some of the most valuable photographs to me were not captured with multiple thousand dollar setups after days of a prep and analysis followed by hours of editing… They were quickly captured moments, flying by us in life, that would have been completely missed had not for the readily available camera on the back of a phone. These tiny parts of our soul may not be perfectly sharp, properly exposed, or even all that interesting to anyone not present at the time… but they speak to our hearts for what they are. And that we can always relive them.

    Thanks again,

  13. Thanks, David. I appreciate your willingness to expose your heart (soul) as well as your photos.

  14. That is some pretty challenging thinking, David. The taking time part is something particularly strong to me. We live on the road, traveling to good locations for photography and places to simply enjoy.

    Currently we are in Gunnison, CO. There is a photographer here that “owns” the Gunnison area. What I have discovered is that rather than rushing around to take a bunch of photos, by spending more time exploring different places/locations/hikes and thinking about what I am seeing, ideas emerge. Not necessarily while I am there, but as I let the experience percolate in my mind. This local photographer does some fine work, and is also inspirational. He has a knack for capturing the essence of this area. But what I am finding is I am uncovering my own “essence” of this part of the country. And now, after 10 days here, I am starting to take some photographs……

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