Friday, May 29, 2020

The Subject of Photography Is Not the Subject of Photography

Play House
Armuchee Valley, Walker County, GA
Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic 20mm f1.7

What I mean by that is that photography is not about photography. Photography, at least the photography I care about, is about life. It's about the subject of the photograph, not the act of photographing the subject. Most of us who think of ourselves as photographers are interested in the tools, techniques, and processes of photography, and that's good. But that in itself is not photography.

Involvement with equipment and with the photographic process are necessary stages in the development of most photographers, but they are not what photography is about. To learn the true meaning of photography, to come to a place where we can make photographs which are truly our own, we must learn to become involved with the subject.  

Our knowledge of equipment and the photographic process is not forgotten or set aside; these things take their proper place as means to an end. And that end is the presentation 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."

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.)

Our work as photographers is to so isolate and clarify that others may through us see the things that are around them.  Our 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 subjects to reveal the essence of themselves. 
(Photograph copyright David B. Jenkins 2020)
Soli Gloria Deo
For the glory of God alone

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