Philosophy of Photography

A photograph has dimension and a point of view, but in the end it is a slice of time, and a managed slice of time at that. It is orchestrated whether you believe it or not.  You set up your camera, you press the shutter release, the camera operates, film or an electronic sensor is exposed.  It all happens very quickly.  From the point of view of the photograph there is no before, no after, and nothing outside the bounds of the frame.  Often a moment or two makes all the difference in whether the photograph is good or bad.

(Jalama County Beach, near Lompoc County, CA.  Published 2000.  Click on photo to enlarge.)

Capturing what you see, or what you think you see in that split second is critical.  Your sense of timing must be right. If you are using a film camera it must be loaded with film.  If it is an electronic camera it must have available memory and battery power.  The settings must be correct, the depth of field must be adequate to the subject and composition, the focus must be right, the camera must function properly, your artistic sense must be dead on.  Lots of things can go wrong so everything must work right.  I used to joke that photography was like fishing because photographers often like to talk about the one that got away.  And like fishing if it gets away there is nothing to show for your trouble.

I no longer think about the ones that got away, but I often think of the photos I have that are not quite good enough for reproduction.  I have thrown away literally thousands of transparencies and digital files.  Maybe the color was not quite right, the focus was a bit off, or the lab wrecked the processing (it used to happen).  Where any myriad of things do not come together in that split second you probably won’t make a memorable image.  These few things are not the only faults of bad photographs because the list is almost endless.

In particular I remember the family vacation in 1990.  This was our grand tour of the American west.  We went to Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, & Oregon.  We saw The Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Mt. St. Helens, Crater Lake, and drove home via the great central valley of California.

I shot 10 rolls of Kodak color print film, 360 whole photos!  I thought that was an immense amount of film bought with many hard earned dollars.  Surely, I thought, I would have many masterpieces to show off.  They were all trashy snap shots.  None of them reproduced what I had thought I was trying to capture.  None of them passed the emotion or drama back that I thought I was so faithfully recording on film.  I was shocked!  But it was a cheap lesson, I could have been happy and continued doing snap shots forever.

Instead this failure motivated me.  I realized I had no photographic skills and there was a lot to learn.  I had visited some great landscapes.  All I came home with were fish stories.  I began to read some photography magazines.  The magazines led me to some books.  I read the books.  They explained good field technique and composition.  As I read I would say to myself “I wasn’t doing that” or “no wonder that photo is trash”, and things to that effect.

It was the early 90’s.  I changed from print film to color transparency film.  I went on more trips, I followed the advice I read in the books as best as I could.  I bought other books and read them.  My photography improved.  For an amateur I thought I was getting pretty good.  Maybe I was, but the key word here is amateur. My depth of experience was still shallow and I relied on commercial establishments for prints.  Only a very few of these commercial prints reproduced the transparency faithfully.  More often the colors came back muted, or the image was slightly out of focus, or both.

I talked to a gallery owner.  She was uninterested in the work of an amateur.  She wanted only the work from someone who devoted all of their time to landscape photography.  I did not appreciate her comments at the time, so many years ago, but as I shoot more and more I realize there was much truth in what she said.

I attended my first photo workshop in September 1994.  The instructors finally commented that the prints I showed were muddy, but the original transparencies were sharp and bright and well saturated.  They wanted to know what was going on, why there seemed to be two different photographers showing the same things.

I spent more of my free time making photographs and perfecting my technique.  By the late 90’s people who had seen my work 5 years earlier commented favorably on the improvements I had made.

As time has passed I learned to print my own work.  I have seen some of my photographs make it into calendars and shows.  I have grown in my wisdom and become more and more critical of my compositions.  And I still know there is room for improvement.

(King’s Canyon Creek, published 2000.  Click photo to enlarge)

I found that better than the fishing analogy, photography should be compared to the Mohs scale of minerals.  The scale rates stones on a hardness scale of 1 through 10.  Talc is softest at 1, diamond is hardest at 10.  Photography is the same way.  Most photographers are really snap shooters, they rate 1, 2, or 3, real soft.   A lot of amateurs are 4, 5, & 6.  They show some substance. Professionals and a few amateurs are 7, 8, & 9, very hard, very tough, very good.  Like diamonds, 10s are at the very pinnacle.  They are the best.  The 10s are so far above the 9s that they exist in a different world.

Think of the skill, time, and patience it takes to be a master of your profession like these 10’s, the people with the best photos, the people who spend 6 or more months of the year in the field, the people who hike to strange places, who wait hours or days for one good shot.  These are the photographers who have a certain composition in mind.  Some of them go to the same place year after year waiting for the right light until they get it.  It is a daunting task.  Very few ever make it that high.  I no longer tell fish stories, I realize I am hunting for diamonds.

There is a hook in photography.  It grabs some people and never lets them go.  The hook is the thrill, promise and anticipation of what that next photo could be.  It is entirely possible for just any person with a camera to be able to make a great photograph, a great piece of art, to make an enduring diamond.  But it is not possible for just any person to be able to do this over and over again.

The camera and the art of its use is a great leveler of the anticipation, but it does not quench the thrill.  Within its power to capture a scene the camera will do so.  But it is up to you to stretch its power to record.

I would love to count myself among that elite group of 10’s, but I am not.  I am still trying, still reading books, still learning, still getting out somewhere in the wild American west, and still hunting that diamond.

I have a few photographs in this website that some will say rate a 10, but most, of course, are not.  Many are 6s, 7s, or 8s.  A few might even rate 9 or a little higher.  Others I have purposely included as snapshots, 1s or 3s or so.  But they are all important to me and the stories that go with them are important to me.

In your visit of this website I hope that at least one of these photographs moves you to awe, that it awakens an emotion in you, a wonder that places exist that can be so strange and so beautiful. Maybe that wonder will even awaken an urge in you to pick up a camera and try to get a diamond. If I can do that then I will have succeeded.

(cover of the 2006 Mono Lake Committee Calendar, photo by Steven Rosen) 

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