Thursday, July 3, 2014

Reading Another Book, Letting Go of the Camera

Am reading Brook Jensen’s Letting Go of the Camera and came across one of his essays, Windows & Artifacts, that relates to what I have been saying about seeing a photograph as a photograph and not as the subject matter. He has a slightly and very interesting different twist.

His story begins in his doctor’s office where he sees a photograph of a sunset over a mountain range. He realizes that in order to relieve the stress of the doctor visit he is fantasizing about being at the location of the photograph as though it were a window that he is looking out rather than seeing the photograph as a photograph. He is seeing the photograph as a window rather than as an artifact.

In thinking about the difference Brook compares a photograph to other visual art such as painting, sculpture, even performance art. As a painting, sculpture, performance you look at the object—the surface. Thus the experience of that art is in the here and now. Whereas, we see a photograph as a means of transporting the viewer to the object at the time of the exposure. Thus that experience is there and then.

As a result of this difference in experiencing the ‘art’ leaves the impression that it takes no talent to be a photographer—it is simply the good fortune of being at the right place at the right moment. It ignores the skill required, the commitment required to producing good photographs; to being a thinking, conceptual  photographer. It ignores context. If you buy a camera you are a photographer. If you buy a piano you own a piano. In truth, owning a camera does not make you a photographer any more than owning a piano makes you a pianist.

To some degree this helps explain, or at least helps me understand, why I have such difficulty getting others to understand the concept of seeing the photograph as an object of art rather than the object photographed. No other visual art form is so tenacious, so difficult to experience in the here and now.

I probably am less kind than Brooks. I believe one of the major differences between a picture taker and a photographer is this ability to experience the photograph as a photograph, an artifact. I seem to have been fighting this battle for so many years that I am getting weary of the struggle—why should I care?
I will venture an unsupported guesstimate, the numbers are fictitious and probably extremely generous, the concept is spot on--for better than eighty percent of all photographs taken the there and then is the total context of the photograph. It is of no value to discuss such a photograph beyond the subject matter. I know a lot of photographers that seem to want more from their photographs but few that understand why they don't get anything more. Sorry, the answer is not in a how-to book or in a the vast majority of seminars and absolutely not in a webinar.


  1. This must be the Dummies version and I comprehend this simplistic description. I think we all want to transport our viewer and leave an impression with our photograph. Nothing warms my heart like someone telling me they feel like they are in the photo with me up close and personal. I can ask myself: if I'm in a doctor's waiting room, would my photo draw a person in to experience it rather than sitting in anxiety.
    Thanks Gary.

  2. Saundra, there are dozens of ways to legitimately approach photography. It can be approached as an aid to memory (frequently), as documentation, as showing another what you have seen, etc. Each needs to be approached differently. I tend to be the 'minor god' snapping into creation my own little world that is more in keeping with the world I would like to have but don't. None of the ways is locked in as the one and only. When I write about photography I write from personal point of view. I exist in a very small area of photography.