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hardscapes # 4 ~ if you want to grow apples, plant apples seeds - not orange seeds

light, shadow, color, form, and beautyclick to embiggen
Things tend to come at me in bunches, so I am not really surprised that after yesterday's little foray into the world of photographic advice and wisdom the topic should come again today in response to more "advice" as offered up on T.O.P..

Under the banner of The Leica as Teacher, Mike Johnston states:

...if any young or beginning photographer of real ambition within the sound of my voice would like to radically improve his or her photography quickly and efficiently, I suggest shooting with nothing but a Leica and one lens for a year. Shoot one type of black-and-white film ... [P]ick a single-focal-length 50mm, or 35mm, or 28mm ... ©arry the camera with you all day, every day. Shoot at least two films a week. Four or six is better ... [T]he more time you spend shooting, the better ... [I] guarantee you will be a much better photographer after you finish the year than you were before you started.

Johnston goes on to offer advice on proofing, printing, and sundry other things.

Now, it should be noted that I believe that Johnston and I fall somewhere near each other's time-on-planet measurement and, photo history-wise, we both hail from a far distant point on Mr. Peabody & Sherman's WABAC (The Wayback Machine) time dial. That said, I can sympathize with his rather sentimental and romantic, one might even say, "nostalgic", notion of the best way to learn about:

... looking at light and ignoring color ... will teach you as much about actually seeing photographs as three years in any photo school, and as much as ten or fifteen years (or more) of mucking about buying and selling and shopping for gear like the average hobbyist.

However ... I find this little nugget of wisdom to look more like fool's gold than the real deal. IMO, it's akin to saying, "if you want to learn how to use a computer, you should spend the next year using only an old Smith Corona (non-electric) typewriter with paper and carbon paper. Doing so will improve your understanding of how to use words."

To my way of thinking that makes no sense whatsoever - in large part because this "old school" idea places too much emphasis on a gear-based approach to picturing - the notion that equipment can teach you how to "see".

The Art of "Seeing" is in your head, your heart, your soul - not in your camera.

It has been stated by David Hurn (and many others) that:

... the photographer is, primarily, a subject-selector. Much as it might offend the artistically inclined, the history of photography is primarily the history of subject matter. So a photographer’s first decision is what to photograph.

A sentiment with which I totally concur. And, as an adjunct to that idea, it has also been stated that once one decides what to picture, one will find or "invent" the means to do it. As the American Artist and educator, Robert Henri, wrote in his wonderful book, The Art Spirit:

First there must be the man. Then the technique.

...or, with a bit more depth ...

The technique of little individuality will be but a little technique ... [H]owever long studied it still will be a little technique; the measure of the man. The greatness of Art depsends absolutely upon the greatness of the artist's individuality and on the same source depends the power to acquire a technique sufficient for expression ... [T]he techique learned without a purpose is a formula which when used, knocks the life out of any ideas to which it is applied.

Now, if you want to take a stroll through photography's past as a method for learning how to "see" (and I think that's a great idea), spend your year looking at the actual pictures made by past masters. But, even that trip has to augmented by a considerable amount of time spent looking at what's happening now, photography-wise, in order to have a well-balanced view of the medium and its possibilities.

All of that said, here's a practical case in point - my son, Aaron The Cinemascapist, has never pictured with film and a film camera. Even though I was acutely of his artistic inclinations at a very early age, try as I might to encourage / foster it, before the appearance of the digital domain (photography-wise), he just wasn't interested in making pictures. I think that it was just too much of a "hassle", all the technical / technique stuff, that is.

However, when he acquire his first-ever camera - a "crappy" reconditioned Olympus E-300 - less than 3 short years ago, he quickly leaned how "match the needle" (in a sentimental / romantic manner of speaking) for good exposure and simply let the camera do the rest (focus, etc.).

Long story (by his standards, short for the rest of us), short - he had his first solo NYC gallery show within the first year and has in the intervening 2 years had solo shows in LA, London, and NYC (again). Feature articles about his work have appeared in numerous international Art/photography pubs and online photo "magazines". His work has been reviewed and written about in 20 different languages all around the planet. He was a nominee for Best Fine Art / Personal Series at the 2008 NY Photo Awards and he also received an Honorable Mention for Fine Art Category and Deeper Perspective Category at the 2008 International Photography Awards. He has gallery representation in San Francisco and NYC. His pictures are being acquired by international collectors.

Amongst many accolades, La Repubblica - Italy's leading daily newspaper, said; "... is a small masterpiece of technique and visual writing as are the other works of this artist, who is one of the best talents in America."

Now, here's the point - Aaron just got right down to making pictures with the tools that he intended to use. As per part of Johnston's advice he did make a lot of pictures in a short period of time during which he decided what it was he wanted to picture and how he would do so. How to do so depended as much upon his digital darkroom skills as his camera skills but, no matter how you look at it, he was discovering and learning how to express his inner vision, the individuality of the man, and the technique to do so just "fell to hand", so to speak.

IMO, he had a head start on all of this stuff, especially the inner vision thing, because he did spend a good amount of time while festering as a youth paying attention to my significant collection of past and current photo masters photo books as well as - I am extremely happy and pleased to say - some of my work that greatly influenced and inspired his search for what to picture (also see here and here).

It's also well worth noting for the gearheads in the crowd that, to this day, he is still picturing with hand-me-down equipment - my "old" Oly E-500 and E-510. It's also well worth noting that he has never made pictures with anything but the "kit" lens that came with his first camera.

It's also very well worth noting that, if his very life depended upon doing any of this with old-timey photo skills, I'd have been visiting his grave site (instead of his gallery shows) a long time ago.

So, my advice to young / beginning picture makers of real ambition - get a camera, any camera and start taking pictures, lots of pictures, all the while looking at lots of pictures made by others (past and present) and think long and hard about the man/woman within and how that relates to the real world - most definitely NOT the photo world.

If, at the end of year, you still haven't figured out what to picture - or at least have a hint about it - maybe you need to consider taking up ballroom dancing or twittering as your passion.

Reader Comments (3)

Mark, I think the typewriter analogy is an extremely poor one, perhaps even insultingly so. The experience of what I'm suggesting is fundamentally different in interesting ways from learning photography with a digital camera. Perhaps you might have put a little effort into understanding my explanations of the differences.

Furthermore, I think using Aaron as anecdotal evidence is disingenuous. It's like Leopold Mozart saying "Why tell people to play scales? My son had no trouble composing when he was 11." Aaron is one in 10,000; he actually has a real gift for photography. Most photo hobbyists don't have anything like that degree of talent.


May 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Johnston

Mark, Mike: I can see where you're both coming from. I think the point Mike was making was that the best way of seeing photographically was to put as little technical impediment or distraction in the way, the Leica being an excellent way to do that. It is precisely because it is not about the camera that it is a good choice.
The typewriter would be a good analogy for a novelist and I have seen & read it advocated thus. Likewise in many areas, learners are better served by going back to older technology: modern tech has a habit of making us lazy and less focused on the task at hand. In my own area of expertise in engineering (heavily computer oriented) I actually teach a return to pencil and paper for much the same reason.

May 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Doonan

I can only speak from my own experience. My ability to see photographically was greatly helped when I began using a simple rangefinder with fixed 35 mm lens. Based on my personal experience, I would agree with Mike in advocating this as the best tool for learning photographic seeing.

June 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBlake

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