A recent podcast by Brooks Jensen, the editor of LensWork magazine, made me think about my own path into fine art photography.
Almost all technical challenges I faced when making fine art photographic print are gone. Those include setting the camera exposure, developing the film, enlarging and developing a print, then touching up the print where required. That process was complicated and there were many places where it could go irreparably wrong. There were also those darkroom chemicals that smelled and were not skin friendly. You had to have an interest in science to be a good photographer, unless you were a person of means and could afford to have someone else do that process work.
Today you can create a technically perfect image without knowing a thing about the old technology. The cameras of today take care of all that automatically. Literally anyone can produce a technically perfect image almost all the time. Cell phone cameras of today have advanced to a level of automation that no photographer could have imagined back in the 1950’s.
However, what remains a challenge today for the fine art photographer is exactly the same that existed back in the 1950’s—capturing an image with your camera that will stir an emotion and connect with the viewer.
What I didn’t know back when I was a younger person, focussed only on the technical aspects of photography, and what took me more than half my life to realise, was summarised by Ansel Adams when he said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”
Consider three genres of photography—reportage, street photography, and landscape photography.
The photographic journalist creating reportage has the challenge of getting to the place where something is happening that needs to be recorded in photographs. Then, having the courage to get in the middle of a stressful and risky situation, whilst keeping their eyes open to the scenes and action, whether it be good or bad. Steve McCurry is one of the icons of reportage photography.
Street photographers need to be sensitive to what is going on around them and how people are reacting to their environment. Then they have to pick the right moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the original masters of this art form. A couple of others considered to be amongst the best are Elliott Erwitt and Patti Fogarty. I used to do street photography when I was living in England in the 1960’s, but those were different times.
Landscape photography, which I enjoy very much, still presents a challenge. That landscape photographer’s put down still rings in my head almost every time I think I see something I like, visually. “Oh, there goes Jack again, but surely it’s just ARAT.” (Another Rock, Another Tree)
If that’s all I come up with, then my photo session in the field is a failure. I have to admit, that’s the result is 80% of the time. The other 20%, the successful images, are the ones so difficult to create.
Unlike the old analogue days when I sent my film off to the Kodak processing lab, then waited two weeks for my slides to arrive in the mail, I now come home and start post processing the image on my computer on the same day. That is the second point in the process when creativity flows and I discover an image that I can make far better than what I saw in the field. This is not because I can manipulate the image to have something that wasn’t there. What I work on are things like enhancing the lighting of the scene, improving the contrast, or converting the image to black and white. Sometimes there are objects I might remove so they don’t distract from what I want to the viewer to focus on, but I never add anything into the image.
Yes, creating a great landscape image is still hard, but those few prints that I hang on my walls at home make it worthwhile. Usually, I end up with no more than about eight of those winners in a year. The image at the start of this essay is one of those from 2021.