Friday, January 24, 2020

The Three Stages of Photography: Stage Three

Early Snow. McLemore Cove, Walker County, Georgia
Canon EOS 20D, 70-200 F4L lens

The third and ultimate stage of photography is involvement with the subject. 

The things we've learned about equipment and the photographic process in earlier stages are not forgotten or set aside; they are relegated to their proper roles as means to an end.  And that end is the presentation,  the revelation of the subject.

Dorothea Lange kept a quotation by the English essayist Francis Bacon on her darkroom door:  "The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."

Contrary to what you've probably been taught, photography is not an art of self-expression.  Photography is above all others the art of self-effacement. Photography reaches its highest plane when the photographer has so mastered its tools and processes that he is able to use them to take himself out of the way and allow the subject to speak, to reveal itself through his skill. Paradoxically, it is only then that the photographer fully and truly expresses himself.

Another paradox is the fact that looking at a photograph of something is often the best way to see it. "...the camera's innate honesty...provides the photographer with a means of looking deeply into the nature of things, and presenting his subjects in terms of their basic reality. It enables him to reveal the essence of what lies before his lens with such clear insight that the beholder may find the recreated image more real and comprehensible than the actual object." (Edward Weston, "Seeing Photographically," The Complete Photographer, January, 1943.)

The Watchers. Fayetteville, Indiana
Canon EOS 20D, Canon EF 24-85 f3.5-4.5 lens

Our work as photographers is to isolate and clarify so that others may through us see the things that are around them. Our expensive equipment and our skill at using the processes of photography are enjoyable in themselves, but are ultimately pointless unless they become the channels through which we empower our subject to reveal the essence of itself.

What subject?  I can't answer that question for you. Edward Weston found his universe in peppers, shells, and rocks. Steiglitz found his in clouds, Ansel Adams in the forces of nature. Dorothea Lange found hers in the faces of the poor and dispossessed, and Cartier-Bresson found his in the patterns of everyday life. I have found mine in the play of light across a human face, and across the face of the land. Ultimately, your answer will come out of your world view.

I believe that this world was created by a loving and sovereign God, and is filled with both beauty and mystery. I believe he created man in his own image, and although man has fallen and that image has been broken and marred, it still exists. Man is thus both savage and noble, and the world is a place of both darkness and light, of chaos and order. I want my photographs to show a world of beauty and mystery, of light and darkness, of nobility in the midst of savagery. There is chaos, but underlying it, there is order.

Rooted in the Past
Armuchee Valley, Walker County, Georgia
Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic Lumix 14-140 f3.5-5.6 lens

Your way of looking at the world may be different from mine. If it is, your photographs should show that difference. Your photographs must be yours.  They must come from your heart, your way of seeing life and the world.

So what subject?  The whole world is before you.

What are you waiting for?

(This series of posts were originally published in 1999 as an article in Rangefinder Magazine titled The Three Stages: Photography as the Art of Self-Effacement.)

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