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Thursday, 23 July 2020


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This is the essay that I was thinking of when I mentioned a different one the other day, in the "Access" thread. Thanks, Mike, for getting it right for me (and us).

Thanks, will check these out. I did like this post, but I have a bit of a disagreement/objection.

If we're talking about art, then we have to break down the object into some categories:

The formal qualities---what the object is, how it was made, it's appearance and presentation,its composition

The subject matter

The content

The "deep content"

In a really good work, all of these things intertwine (although I have seen some amazing work that has these things untwined...).

Subject matter and content are different things. They can map over one another. Also, sometimes the formal qualities can be the subject matter, and that in turn can map over content. And vice-versa.

Deep content is the sort of "subconscious" of an artwork. It needs the other things to be properly calibrated and "performed" for it to be able to be retrieved and understood. And the greater the art the deeper that subconscious lake can be.

The above is a general outline for all art. If the photography is art, then these are going to apply. So, my concern about photography is this emphasis on capture and subject matter, and not considering too hard the other things---even the other formal qualities. And I think for a number of people not looking at things more broadly inhibits or attenuates their own program sort of on the first step.

Good advice for art and life and even politics. I like politicians who emphasize specific things they will do and why, not so much how great they are. For song writing, Greg Brown joked that if he wrote about himself too much it would just be a list of one boring thing after another. For fiction, your story and your characters and your setting make “the thing.”

Love the Bill Jay quote, Mike. I think the subject of subject is particularly pertinent right now, when so many of us are limited in travel and social engagement. Due to family obligations and the pandemic, my own subjects have shrunk largely to two these days: my own garden and a nearby park to which I escape for an hour each day. Since I have to photograph for my own sanity, this is forcing me to explore these subjects ever more deeply. This is for me the silver lining in having limited choices: being forced ever more deeply into the work rather than moving from one thing to another, grabbing the obvious images, scraping the surface.

I consider that reading "On being a photographer" was much more important for me than the Ansel Adams trilogy. "On being a photographer" is right up there with "l'Art sans Art" (the Art without Art), a Cartier-Bresson biography and discussion.

Both books go to the deep, deep core of photography.

It's a terrific little book with lots of good advice that remains relevant today.

I use their basic principles of subject selection to help students figure out if their project ideas are viable. The second question, "Is it practical?", connects directly to your earlier posts about "access".

"Is it visual? You can safely eliminate such fascinating (to you) topics as existential philosophy or the Old Testament or the existence of intelligent life on other planets.

Is it practical? You can cut out topics which are difficult or impossible to photograph at your convenience on a regular basis. For example, if I were a photographer of limited means living in, say, Denver, I would have to eliminate the topic of Japanese pagodas, at least as far as photography is concerned. Or I would cut out an interest in famous film stars — the subject must be not only practical but continually accessible.

Is it a subject about which I know enough? Eliminate those subjects about which you are ignorant, at least until you have conducted a good deal of research into the topic. For example, you are not contributing anything to the issue of urban poverty by wandering back streets and snatching pictures of derelicts in doorways. That's exploitation, not exploration.

Is it interesting to others? This is a tricky one, but it is worth asking yourself: if you have several remaining topics all of which are equally fascinating, which one is interesting to others? This is tricky only in that it ignores the issue of your intended audience, which might be a small, specialized one, and the issue of pandering to public appeal.”

Don't know if you've seen this from Jay Maisel, but it has always resonated with me as good advice on how to be a photographer. https://vimeo.com/116692462

Mike, I read Bill's article and I can't quit thinking about it? While I enjoyed the read and understand what he is trying to say. I am just not sure what he says about the subject applies to all photographers. I for one, love nothing more than to get lost in a strange city or country side where I have never been and just wander. To me the process of discovery is what is important, and not what I am trying to shoot. I have never failed to bring back something that excites me when I do this. Recently my wife and I decided that we had enough of staying close to home and went on one on Ohio's great blue highways. We drove on a beautiful country highway to Amish country. Found some interesting subjects and photos. The other day we did the same thing only about 10 miles from our home and discovered several covered bridges. Some people may call these subjects boring, but for me just having discovered them, they were exciting and interesting. My point is that the process of photography is just as important as the subject and maybe more so. My thoughts on the article. Thanks for sharing. Eric

Well—no wonder boudoir photography remains so popular!

I enjoyed and learned much from "On Being a Photographer. But it was your comment on the Rebel that made me decide to respond.

I too had an EOS Rebel. The one the tennis player hawked as I recall but all I had for it was the horrific kit lens. I took that on our trip to Vietnam to adopt our son in 2002. That taught me two things:

1) I really wanted to learn to be a _good_ photographer and
2) The EOS Rebel was holding me back. Between the idiot modes and the bad lens, I was getting nothing worth mentioning. Even as snapshots they were worse than my mom's Instamatic and flash cubes.

I discovered a first a YashicaMat 124G and then a Yashica 45GN fixed lens rangefinder and between them, it was off to the races.

Cameras are just like hammers. They come in many sizes and one does many different things with them. You can gently persuade a tack into place or drive a large stake into the ground. (never do this with a camera unless it says F2 on the front)

Buy ya is best if one has a passion for a subject. Right now I look for leftover remnants of old Texas. They are disappearing fast but I love a good Rt. 66 style scene.

Bill Jay's writings have resonated with me since I read them in Lenswork and then in his book(s). His language was simple, clear, direct, and free of words like "vision" which I do not understand.

I do miss his take on photography and his honest writings. They work for me.

Thanks for reminding us all of him.

I think it is easy to overthink what we do. It's passion that moves me and makes it near impossible for me to explain a photograph of mine. The photo will speak for itself if it is to be heard at all. And honestly, who is really seeing my work at all?

To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, "I take photos to find out what photography is".

Mike, you may be happy to hear that David Hurn now uses Fuji mirrorless cameras.
I fully agree on your recommendation on his excellent book.

I have said many times, probably even many times here, that On Being a Photographer and Mountain Light (by Galen Rowell) were always my favorite books about photography because they say so much that is the same, even though the authors practice such different kinds of photography.

Everyone interested in this subject should read both of them.

I miss Bill Jay very much. On my humble opinion, the two best writers about photography of all I have read are Bill Jay and Mike Johnston because both write (or wrote) about it in ways that are unpretentious and that speak to me.

[High praise! Thanks. I'll slip you that twenty later. ;-) --Mike]

I think I still have all the issues of Creative Camera that Bill Jay edited.

One of the creators of the Bill Jay documentary is Grant Scott. Check out his podcast at https://unitednationsofphotography.com/ .

This essay is included in his book, Occam's Razor, published by Nazraeli Press, 1992.

Did I miss something? Wasn't the phrase "the thing itself" coined by John Szarkowski in "The Photographer's Eye" (published in 1966) years before this article by Mr. Jay? Perhaps Szarkowski got it somewhere else, but he certainly preceded Mr. Jay in using that wonderful phrase. Szarkowski also wrote on the idea of pointing as a basis for photographic work. "Looking At Photographs" and "The Photographer's Eye" are two essential texts for photographers IMHO.

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