It has been 12 years since I created this blog as a way of educating myself about photography in its technical, socio-historic, and aesthetic aspects. The idea was that writing about it would require me to consider any lessons formally and therefore (hopefully) more perspicuously. What have I learnt?

Over these 12 years, I have learned a good deal on the technical side and indeed the whole process led me to building a darkroom and studio.

But there have been more important lessons than the technical aspects. The almost daily activity of taking pictures, printing them, putting them up on the wall, thinking about them, then discarding almost all of them, has been both salutary and humbling.  

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there has been little room for bullshit. The daily grind of discarding all the failed pictures cures you of that. Not much room for ego. With so many technical mistakes, so many poor compositions, so many pictures with little to say, what room can be left for bullshit?

Secondly, a few weeks ago, I was reconsidering which photographers I most admire. On the ‘About’ page my website lists the following: Eugène Atget, Paul Strand, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Minor White, Walker-Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Kertész, Fred Herzog, Raymond Moore, Edwin Smith, Lee Friedlander, Fay Godwin and Andrew Sanderson.

I had originally thought about this list as key influencers of my work, but I backed off this idea as the bullshit-meter was showing a red light. The question I asked myself was: ‘OK, these are the photographers you most admire. What brings them together and what does this say about your photography’?

Now, this isn’t a bullshit list of photographers that I made up to make me seem knowledgeable. I have actually looked at thousands of photographs over the last 12 years and seen lots of work in my capacity as trustees of the Royal Photographic Society and the Open Eye Photography Gallery. I have seen some good photographs, but many, I have to say, I found uninteresting. Some aspects of post-modernism leave me cold.

This gripe aside, back to my list. What is the common denominator? Well, all these photographers are pre – ‘post-modern’. All but one (Andrew Sanderson) have in their viewfinders some aspect of the human story, albeit in very different ways. Atget’s empty Paris, Walker Evan’s billboards, Fay Godwin’s human interactions with landscape, to pick just three from the list, all say something about the human sphere. Sanderson is on the list for different reasons, chiefly for his skill of noticing quite ordinary things.

Gerry Badger once wrote, “if photographers don’t ‘get’ Atget – or Walker Evans for that matter – they don’t really get photography” 1. ( There is some truth to this statement. Let me explain what Badger is getting at. Photography is at its heart a documentary medium in that it simply records what is available to light at the moment of shutter release 2. Its power comes from this very fact. The photograph takes you there. Atget’s photographs, not given to any technical prowess, or Evan’s photographs of shop fronts seemingly flat and unadorned, both show a human interest and through composition and lighting, perform in a way that accentuates a feeling or mood. The term ‘grace’ has been applied to Atget’s photographs. The term ‘lyrical documentary’ photography has been applied to Walker Evans.

The point Badger is making is that the photographic medium is at its best when a human story is being laid out even when in the absence of a particular person in the frame. Not only that, but the most effective way of laying out a story is through an unadulterated (i.e., ‘straight’) picture of what was in front of the lens. It is this approach that takes you there. The straightness of the photograph does not preclude it from having artistic merit. In the words of Walker Evans:

‘What I believe is really good in the so-called documentary approach to photography is the addition of lyricism. This quality is usually produced unconsciously and even unintentionally and accidently by the cameraman’.

‘When I first made photographs, they were too plain to be considered art and I wasn’t considered an artist… The people who looked at my work thought, well, that’s just a snapshot of the backyard.  Privately I knew otherwise and through stubbornness, stayed with it’.

I largely agree with Badger’s sentiment.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate photographs of trees, sunsets, animals and mountains. But I think they are less interesting than photographs that show something of human life. Of course, it’s difficult to take photographs without indications of human life. A fence post, a gate, a wall, all point to human presence. But a photograph of a fence post will not normally say much about the human condition, although it could, depending on the visual context.

Nor do I say that I don’t enjoy embellishment. Bromoil, Salt and a myriad list of other alt-pro techniques can enhance a picture. But the truth is that I see many alt-pro pictures that don’t really say much, mine included. It is as if the difficulty of making the picture trumps the need for using a picture that says something interesting. I enjoy looking at Bromoils and Salts and making them. The techniques cast a particular light on the images that in some situations add to the pictorial content. The difficulty is that they can also detract and deflect. A Bromoil tends to ‘antique’ or ‘beautify’ an image or lend a gothic mood, depending on how the Bromoil has been made. But can the medium get in the way of the message? Or is it that the medium is the message, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan? For me, the jury is out on this question.

In a way I have come full circle. I took my first photograph when I was 9 years old in 1962. I can still remember the thrill having in my hand a photograph of what I saw, Lichfield Cathedral, taken with a Box Brownie. It still thrills me, and age has now lent it a historical perspective.

My first photograph, 1962

Over the years, I have been through many cameras, techniques and styles. The thing that keeps me motivated comes back to that thing that thrilled me back in 1962. Walker Evans says it best:

‘Leaving aside the mysteries and inequities of human talent, brains, taste and reputations, the matter of art in photography may come down to this; it is the defining of observation full and felt’.

  1. Badger G., (2010)’The Pleasures of Good Photographs‘, Aperture Foundation, New York
  2. I am referring to traditional photography here

3 thoughts on “What have I learned in the last 12 years?

  1. “Taking you there” may be an asset in Gerry’s mind but a GoPro on a car roof does the same. I fail to see the art in many of Atget’s or Walker Evan’s images. A machine can take a perfect straight on image. It fails to inform me of anything other than surface values. Sanderson shows me what I would not have seen if I had stood there myself; that’s genius.
    Glad to see Godwin and Sanderson on your list, they are too often overlooked because they were/are modest and humble artists who spent/spend their time making images rather than promoting themselves.

    1. Thanks for the comment Russ, it’s good to get a diversity of views, although I don’t entirely agree. Godwin has long been a favourite of mine and Andrew’s work is a delight.

  2. Thanks for this post. Perhaps it’s the realization that the more rare the wonder, the greater the inspiration and challenge to see Eden in the prosaic, everyday rather than confined simply to the loneliness of a remote, wild landscape from which we’ve been excluded (“cast out”) by an archangel. Good and thought provoking…. even helpful.

    BTW, not bad for a first photograph.

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