Words and photos by Jim Hughes
I was just discussing the value of "looking up" with an attorney friend, an enthusiastic photographer here in Camden. His hobby was about to become more expensive, apparently. He had just asked if I thought the new Fuji GFX, with its 50-megapixel sensor, which costs more than twice as much as my old $3,000 Miata, would make his pictures better. He was already thinking of upgrading from his new X-T2. No, I answered, it's not the camera that makes the picture, it's the eye. I showed him a print of one of my most recent photographs, taken at a worksite just across the street from his home and office, where a bridge is being replaced, fouling traffic for these past many months. He studied the print for a long time, then announced: "I would never have seen that, not in a million years." I pulled out my own camera, an X-Pro1 purchased last year for less than $500 when it was discontinued, to which I have affixed an ancient 28mm ƒ/2.8 Canon rangefinder lens, and started reviewing for him the images I'd decided not to print, showing cement being poured and bent-over workers smoothing it like glass. "A record of an event is not a picture," I said.
Here's the frame that caught my eye:
Jim Hughes, Triangulated Apparatus, 2017
That happened when I looked up. The next day, again in town, as I was about to enter the local grocery to buy a jug of cider, I happened to look down and made this photograph, which I am about to email to my friend who is still learning our mystifying craft, as of course we all are:
Jim Hughes, Apples, Pears & Skateboards, 2017
Years ago, while doing research for Shadow & Substance, my biography of W. Eugene Smith, in his files I came upon a well-read copy of Zeiss Magazine, from 1938, when he had just begun freelancing in New York City, had been offered a job at the Daily News, and turned it down. "I'd decided I was not really cut out to be a Daily News photographer," he later said.
In my book, I wrote about young Gene's quest to find himself photographically: "He walked the city's streets looking for unusual angles...then holed himself up in his darkened bathroom, often printing through the night. And when he wasn't photographing or printing, he was reading books and magazines about photography.
"He seems to have read one article over and over, practically memorizing it: 'What is Your Viewpoint?' by Leo Nejelski, one of Zeiss Magazine's stable of accomplished photographers. Following normal sight patterns and merely recording on film what one sees, the author suggested, 'has nothing in common with picture making, the expression of thoughts and emotions by means of photography.'
"In a series of carefully drawn examples, Nejelski outlined the advantages of photographing from what he called 'low-point perspective,' 'high-point perspective,' and relative to a given subject, any vertical camera position in between—or, for that matter, any horizontal position a full 360 degrees around the subject. His point was, let the mind's eye roam to set the creative spirit free."
Not too long ago, I received an email from Nejelski's daughter. My book, it turns out, had finally come to her attention, and she just wanted to thank me for remembering her father as the teacher he always had been.
For many years, Jim Hughes was the editor of Camera 35. Later, he was the founding editor of Mike J.'s all-time favorite photo magazine, the original Camera Arts. His books include the superb biography W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance—The Life and Work of an American Photographer, and the monograph Ernst Haas in Black and White. Retired now, he writes occasionally for TOP (see his other articles by finding his name in the "Categories" list in the right-hand sidebar). He and his wife live in Maine.
©2017 by Jim Hughes, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
David Dyer-Bennet: "Yes, work the subject, by all means. Either taking actual pictures, or just moving around and visualizing what you could get. Or even standing still, if your head does 3D modeling that well! It's not inherently better to shoot all the ideas you come up with and pick one later, it's not inherently better to figure it out and just shoot one which is wonderful. They're all equally valid (there's a continuum between those extremes of course).
"Of course, for some subjects, there is less time available to work them than others; that's a real-world constraint that cannot safely be ignored.
"These ideas, by the way, apply (in my allegedly humble opinion) throughout photography; they're just as applicable to shooting a wedding reception, grip-and-grins, wildlife, landscape, abstractions, whatever. Every level from the artiest art to the basest commercialism. (Okay, they don't actually seem very applicable to medical imaging, for one example; so not absolutely all photography.)"
Geoff Wittig responds to David: "I would argue that the same principles absolutely apply to medical imaging! Okay, not so much to MRI scans, though they can sometimes be compelling and beautiful in their own way. But (for example) photographs of surgical procedures can be dry technical illustrations, or they can be dramatic and artistically beautiful photographs without losing any teaching value. One of the nurses I work with took a cell-phone photograph (with the patient's permission!) of a cesarean section. It was perfectly composed, with the emerging infant and surgeons' hands dramatically lit by the overhead operative lights, the rapid light falloff letting the OR clutter fade into darkness. A beautiful image, even ignoring the compelling subject."