I like to look.
The other day my friend, Yinni (nee Enid), asked me to help her to take good photographs. It’s flattering of course, but I am sure my answer was not so helpful.
I loaned her a copy of Taschen’s Icons book.
To know how to take good photographs, you need to know what a good photograph is. To know that you need to look and learn.
It’s a simple idea, but in today’s world where the woman next to you at the internet cafe in Florence has a laptop full of craptastic photos of herself and friends in a panoply of drunken poses it’s becoming more difficult. Basically, like everyone is a writer, now with digital cameras everyone is a photographer. Uhhh…no. People get lucky. Take 1000 photos and yes, out of the shit, there will be gold. It’s statistics but not talent. A good photograph is not an accident. A great photographer getting an great photograph accidentally (see Robert Capa’s photo of the soldier being shot) is not as accidental as Mary Myopia getting one – he knows where to be and where to point the camera and he waits. It’s a fine point but think about it for a second and you will see what I mean.
Reverse what I wrote in a piece about equipment: take the digital camera away and put an old manual Pentax with a 35mm lens in the accidental photographer’s hands and see what happens. The gold disappears because AP will take only 36 photos. Do the same with someone who has a developed aesthetic and he will still get gold, and you will see a series of thoughts being worked through on the contact sheet, not a random exploration of stuff like an idiot running pell-mell looking for shiny things.
People ask me how to write better. I say read. Ask me how to take better pictures my answer is the same. Look at good ones and study them. Why is it good? If you don’t like it, why?
If you look at much contemporary art photography you may be at a loss, too, for a lot of it is pretty rarified and obscure (see what I wrote about George Rousse for an example of what I mean). I am far from knowledgeable about contemporary photography but I want to know more because I want to be better.
I go to galleries and, because I don’t live in Paris or New York or London, I buy books. Not too many but I am getting over the hiccup I get when I see the price of a photo book. Amazon is great, unless you accidentally order two copies of a $45 dollar book – thankfully, I caught it in time. I recommend books that don’t rely on pictures but talk about the essence of a photograph – Sontag, Barthes – and books that do.
When I was about ten and started to take pictures and develop them (Kodak Brownie from a pawn shop for $5 which I worked for. Took 620 film which I developed and contact printed using a kit my parents gave me that came with teeny tiny trays and a little box that used an incandescent bulb for the contact print box. I think it cost $15 way back then from Consumers Distributing which had a catalogue that caused me to dream of getting a Praktica SLR for $150 but I ended up moving to a simply Instamatic that took 110 film – which I don’t ever recommend trying to hand process even with a ten-year old’s hands – and with which I tool pictures of telephone and power wires) I went to the library and looked at photo books. Granted, naked women was an impetus – thanks Ralph Gibson – but I just looked and looked.
When I returned to photography after a long hiatus – when my parents gave me a Pentax K1000 for Christmas – I returned to the library. And used book stores.
I am constantly amazed at people who want to be photographers but don’t know who Robert Frank or Cartier-Bresson or Irving Penn. They all know Ansel Adams and Robert Doisneau and Brassai from postcards and they may recognize Annie Liebowitz and Richard Avedon, but that’s usually the extent. It’s like a filmmaker who has never seen a Godard film or Citizen Kane or a writer who has never read Tolstoy or Lolita.
The problem nowadays is how to choose. Galleries are easy. It’s not a big investment. But photo-books are. Space and money.
I found this great website the other day – http://www.5b4.blogspot.com. It’s all about and only about photobooks, written by a compulsive buyer who really knows his stuff. I can’t remember which blog turned me onto it, but one thing that impressed me was that the site was so good that Alec Soth, a photographer whose excellent work I was lucky enough to see at the Jeu de Palme in Paris, sought out the author who goes by the name of Mr. Whiskets.
So, if you want to take better pictures, read and look. And if you want to know what to read and look at, ask Mr. Whiskets.