Monday, March 21, 2011

Fotogs Know A Camera Is Nothing More Than A Tool For Learning To See

I recently and belatedly bought my first digital single lens reflex camera, belatedly because although I have been an accomplished photographer for 40 years, I was reluctant to move beyond the analog Nikon SLRs that I have toted around on my world travels and have served me so well. But digital technology has become so phenomenal and MacBook laptops such terrific photo workbenches that my obdurance had become ridiculous.

This transition to digital got me to thinking about photography in general and my relationship to it in particular, dredging up the philosophical arguments about whether photography is art and whether documentary photography, let alone photojournalism, can be a part of a creative pantheon that includes prose, poetry and painting.

Long answer short, who cares?

In any event, I have always believed that photography is 90 percent discipline and 10
percent luck, and I do not come by that equation lightly.  All of my better photographs were a result of being disciplined, but also being lucky.  None of the great photojournalists with whom I worked as a newspaper editor -- among them two Pulitzer Prize winners, one Robert F. Kennedy Prize winner and the first woman to be hired as a staff photographer by National Geographic -- would disagree.

To hammer home the point further, of the perhaps 20,000 photographs I have taken (a wild guess, I guess), I can honestly say that fewer than 100 are really good and of that small number only a half dozen or so are great.
  Meanwhile, I don't recall when the notion of the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange that a camera is nothing more than a tool slipped into my consciousness.  Fairly early on, I think.  And while my first SLR was a Nikon F purchased at Nikon's factory in Yokohama in 1970, I quickly realized that while having a quality camera and lenses mattered, it was how my brain processed what I saw through the viewfinder that ultimately would determine the quality of a photograph.

* * * * *
Lange's odyssey from darkroom assistant to one of the greatest documentary photographers and one of the first women to attain that stature is told in Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond The Limits (2009) by Linda Gordon.

It is a book that satisfies and surprises.

It satisfies because Gordon, an historian by calling, understands photography well enough and Lange well enough that Lange's odyssey can be told from a technical and visual point of view in addition to the usual comings and goings, romances and marriages.

It surprises because I had assumed, as do probably most people, that Lange was a feminist long before that term came into popular usage.  She was most decidedly not,
and you will have to read A Life Beyond The Limits to understand why.  Lange is best known for her images of Americans on the move during the Great Depression, and her most famous sequence is a migrant woman refugee from the Dust Bowl sitting by the side of a California road in a lean-to tent, her children hanging from her haggard frame as she looks out into the distance.

Gordon notes that photographs like these in general and interest in Lange in particular wax and wane with the economic seasons, falling out of style when times are good and becoming popular again when times are tough, which they currently are.
Top photograph by Cherelle Farmer


Wander Woman said...

I feel a kinship to you about the whole digital camera thing. Guess those of us who have filmed ingrained into us feel the same. I still like the quality of flim and am not sure I will ever get away from it entirely, but digital is so very interesting in what you can do with it. Just a different kind of tool. What counts the most is your own eye. Anyone with the right vision can take a good picture using any kind of camera. I learned this seeing an art show of Polaroid photos. As for a few good photos out of thousands--well a photog friend of mine said that he usually shot 100 or more pictures in a session and always hoped he would get one or two that were good. I base my percentages on his words.
Have fun with the digital. I like the way you get to see the photo you just took to be sure it is what you wanted.


Wander Woman said...

Whoops--sheesh sorry for the misspellings in that post. I am usually better about those things. Sheesh-

Anonymous said...

I too have been making photographs for over 40 years. I learned over time that I had to see what the lens and film saw. I made the switch to digital several years ago and almost at once realized the CCD in my digital camera did not see things the same way film did. It is still a learning process. I think the editing that is possible after the pictures is taken makes it even more difficult. In addition I can take lots of pictures - in the old days I would take my Hasselblad out for the day a take 10 pictures, one of which might be good if I was lucky. Now I can take hundreds and it's hard to find the good one if there is one.