the photoshooter's journey from taking to making


Sticking The Landing, cover image for my first book, Juxtaposition (2007). 1/160 sec., f/5.2, ISO 100, 24mm.

“Sticking The Landing”, cover image for my first book, Juxtapositions (2007). 1/160 sec., f/5.2, ISO 100, 24mm.


MY FIRST TRY AT ANTHOLOGIZING SOME OF MY PHOTOGRAPHS INTO A BOOK, done about half a dozen years ago, wound up looking like the jokey definition of a camel as “a horse built by committee”. That is to say, it was an exuberant mess, crammed with about ten times too many stylistic flourishes and, I can admit now, a complete lack of editorial judgement. Entitled Juxtapositions, it was an attempt to write a book about photography while also feeling I had nothing important to impart on the subject.

How’s that again?

Looking to spark thought about the eternal truths or universal experiences of making pictures, I passed on the idea of explaining or even captioning any of my own images, relying for text solely on quotations from the greats in the field, from Ansel Adams to DIane Arbus and back again. I was fascinated by how many of the same problems and experiences were common across the entire two centuries of photographic experience, and I hoped I had chosen shots that illustrated just how common those sensations really were, even in the work of an admitted amateur. I still like the idea of the book, but I’d like to find the gee-whiz geek who designed it (me) and slap him around for a while. It would make it easier to thumb through the wretched thing now.

There still may be a way to take the concept again and do it up properly, and at some time I may strap my Icarus wings back on to do it, this time flying a little farther away from the sun. In the meantime, however, I continue to collect the quotes themselves, and to compare the experience of picture-making as it’s seen and felt across various minds and times.

Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning director of the documentary Fog Of War, recently made a great addition to the literature on photography with his wonderful book Believing Is Seeing. It’s an intelligent examination of the visual biases we bring to the act of picture viewing, adding our own mental filters to what the photographer is trying to convey. However, the best quote in this very excellent work comes not from Morris himself, but from a somewhat obscure museum curator named Helmut Gernsheim, who has uttered, in just 59 words, precisely the sentiment that drives me to celebrate photography and to spend many, many more words trying to explain why.

Behold a jewel:

Neither camera, nor lens, nor film determine the quality of pictures; its is the visual perception of the man behind the mechanism which brings them to life. Art contains the allied ideas of making and begetting, of being master of one’s craft and able to create. Without these properties no art exists and photographic art can come into being. —Helmut Gernsheim, 1942, curator

There is a reason we are all here on these pages, a sweet madness that drives us forward from here to make something true. We don’t always bag our prize. But, somewhere deep inside ourselves, we really do understand what that prize is.

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