Photography Lesson in New York City
“Photography is painting with light.”
Photography has always been a subject that has stuck in my craw, for I simply do not understand what is so complex about pointing a box-like instrument at something and pushing a button. I can point and I can push buttons. I am not impressed when someone tells me that they are a photographer. I am a photographer too – I take pictures. My mother, as technologically incompetent as she is, can also take a photograph.
So I asked “What constitutes a good photo?” to a group of photography students who just happened to be sitting near me today.
They looked at me a little askance, but I was serious in my questioning. I know that I am missing something when it comes to photography, and this sticks in my craw.
“I know that photography has to be something more than pointing a camera at something and pushing a button, what is it?” I continued.
The students seemed to find this question difficult to answer, and started and stopped a few explanations before I caught on to what they were saying. They were talking to a complete novice, and it seemed a little challenging for the photographers to dummy themselves down to my level.
“So, is it just a matter of feel that makes a good photo?” I asked them, trying to form some sort of conversational bridge that would allow for communication.
They seemed to agree that a good photo is something that is just obvious, it is just apparent, it is something that just feels good. I understood. I was beginning to take away the impression that good photographers take good photos and bad ones don’t. And this is just the way that it is.
I then asked if there was some sort step by step criteria to taking good photo. I was looking for tips to assuage my own garfunkled manner of taking pictures.
The photographers answered that there was, but they did not seem to really follow it. I got the impression that they worked from feel rather than a linear set of directions.
“When I take a picture in the street, I first take a photo of what I see as I see it, and then I try to take photos of the same thing at different angles,” one of the photographers told me.
Yes, I do this too, though it just results in many garfunkled photos rather than one.
The photographers then began telling me about how one of their fellow students darkened a photo in the studio and how the effect looked good.
This seemed like cheating to me. “Isn’t that cheating?” I asked.
“No, all photos are not the same as reality. If I were to take a picture of that [pointing to something] it will come out differently than it really is. No camera catches light as it is, a picture will always look a little different that what it is of. Photography is painting with light.”
This made sense to me. If photography can be taking as a subjective art – that it is just a representation of the image rather than the image itself – then any amount of post snapshot alteration is not dishonest. I then mentioned that I reviewed a book called Rajasthan: Houses and Men that was made up of highly altered photographs of places around the Rajasthan region of India. I remembered how annoyed I was that the colors in the photos were not the colors of reality, that the artist seemed to have went nuts with Photoshop.
The photographers were not fazed, while I was exasperated by the audacity of someone who would synthesize the natural beautiful colors of India in an attempt to make them more beautiful. This seemed blasphemous to me.
But the photographers just shrugged.
“Even if you just take a photo of something and do not alter it at all, the settings on the camera and the way the camera receives light is going to alter the original image.”
I was beginning to realize now that photography is meant to be an art in and of itself, that it is meant to be an art that is almost separated from its subjects. I was learning by talking to these photographers.
“Is there some level of artistic prestige found in altering colors in a digital photograph?” I asked.
“Some photographers think there is,” the Circassian photographer answered.
“Do you feel artistically castrated if you do not do enough editing to your photos?” I asked, still thinking that if a photographer does not need to put the effort into altering a photo then it may not be considered an art.
“If you don’t have to change anything then you did an amazing job taking the photo.”
This made sense. The art of photography comes before the clicker is ever pushed: it is a way of seeing, a way of approaching, and a way of feeling the world. You are either a photographer or you are just a Joe who takes pictures. A photographer can cross the divide into art without ever altering a shot, for the shot is always altered in the way that it is taken.
“When photography was first invented people thought that it could be an objective way of showing reality, but they quickly realized that it wasn’t,” the Circassian photographer continued. “People soon realized that photographers could easily set up scenes to be photographed and that it could have little to do with how things really are.” She continued to explain to me how the simply act of what to include and exclude in a photograph was a form of subjective decision making in which the photographer essentially creates the scene that they are photographing.
“Photography is painting with light.”
This reminded me a little of journalism. A journalist decides what goes into and what is omitted from an article based on subjective reasoning. A journalist, too, creates their own reality, all while standing behind the cloak of the objective observer.
I always figured that being a good photographer was 20% skill and 80% balls, for it takes big balls to expose yourself in the open to take a photo. It takes a whole lot of huevos to quickly stick your camera in a stranger’s face and click away. I am not good at this, so I know the toughness, determination, or obliviousness that it takes to put yourself in a position to take a good photograph. A photographer needs to take a photo before anyone else can react, the photographer must have the quick draw reflexes of a gun fighter.
A photographer either shoots quickly from feel or instinct or gets shot.
Links to previous travelogue entries:
Time to Leave New York City
Travel Book Reviews on Vagabond Journey
Travel to Bangor Maine