2 April 2020

The beauty of photography - Onno Kervers

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These days, it is not easy to be a photographer. With cameras in our smartphones improving month by month, with different degrees many, many people think or pretend that they are photographers. Of course, in principle, there is nothing against taking photos with an iPhone or a Samsung in contrast to doing so with a Canon, Leica or Nikon, as after all, it is the eye of the photographer, which determines if a photo is good or bad. However, the sheer volume of people taking selfies, shooting or filming just every activity they undertake or event they attend – making me wonder if they really register these experiences! – turn photography into such a mass form of entertainment that I feel that this avalanche also buries the hard trying amateur photographer under a thick layer of snow. Already in 1977, the American writer and philosopher Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “On Photography”: “Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.” This observation is even truer more than four decades later.

Still, with some basic knowledge, creativity, and dedication it is possible to clear away the snow burying you and to practice and experience the beauty of photography and to produce something that aesthetically is more satisfying than an endless stream of selfies. If you have the urge to create a new vision and try to see things in a way most other people do not register what often are scenes of everyday life, and can reveal the hidden beauty of landscapes, architecture or people, then you will very quickly see how rewarding taking a decent photo can be.

Where to start? Well, irrespective of the camera you use (a smartphone, a compact camera or an SLR) you should be in control of your camera. Nothing is more frustrating than coming across a situation or composition promising to render a unique photograph, with your camera not being ready for it - because it is simply not on, you are out of focus or a slow shutter speed produces blur from movement. Next to that, an important asset is basic knowledge of perspective, composition, the relation between shutter speed and aperture (a low shutter speed provides greater depth of field, but if you want to register action you will need a high shutter speed, which will increase the necessity of focussing more accurately) and the different effects different lenses produce. A book or suitable information on the web on these basics will certainly be helpful.

Once you understand and apply such techniques, photography is like other activities, such as sports, playing cards or performing music: “practice creates the master”, as the Germans put it. In practice, try to find the “decisive moment”, the one moment that produces an ideal photograph. The notion of the “decisive moment” was first introduced by the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) to describe the coincidence of visual and dramatic highlights. As he more or less put it himself: photography is recognizing, in a split second, at the same time the importance of an event and the exact composition that best expresses that event. Mentioning Cartier-Bresson brings us to another important contribution to the development of a photographer, namely that to let oneself be inspired. According to the kind of photography you aspire – we will turn to that in a moment – read about but first and foremost observe the works of great and less great photographers on the subject. Go to photo exhibitions, talk to fellow photographers about their inspiration and aspirations, be inspired yourself but do not slavishly copy!

For outdoor photography, extra inspiration can be found in shooting in different circumstances of light and weather. Sunlight gives beautiful colors, but can also be somewhat boring. Early or late light adds atmosphere, but a clouded and dark day can give a very different sometimes gloomy atmosphere. Rain or snow is further ingredients very suitable for variations on a theme!

Once back home and downloading the images shot on your hunt on a computer, be critical of the result. Quality always should win over quantity, so even the slightest doubt about the quality of a photo should end in hitting the delete button. Review your photos after some time and consider if they really are as good as you initially thought. Although a bad shot never will become a really good photo, editing can help, even if it is limited. Being from the analog era, when Photoshop did not exist and the possibilities for editing were limited, I am still largely a purist and a believer of the “decisive moment”, so I edit as little as possible. However, cropping, correcting exposure, adding contrast and brightening up colours can give a decent photograph of the necessary extra zip! If you present your photos, in an album, a projected slideshow or at an exhibition, instead of doing this chronologically, find a logical or thematic way that will keep the viewers interested.

Talking about themes, very few good photographers excel in different themes: a landscape photographer does normally not take the greatest portraits and, although they both aim at capturing living beings, wildlife photography cannot be compared to (candid) street photography! Concentrating on one theme will almost certainly improve one’s quality as a photographer as you will gather deeper experience and learn more quickly from your own mistakes. Although the themes one can select are almost endless, personally I would qualify as “classic” or “great themes” the themes listed hereafter, and influential and famous photographers have been added for each theme.

Let us start with a theme that we all include in our photos, especially when we go on holiday: landscape photography. One of the greatest artists in this respect was no doubt the American photographer Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984). Still among us are the Brit Michael Kenna (b. 1953) and Takeshi Mizukoshi (b. 1938) from Japan. While outdoors, let us turn to wildlife photography, a very special theme because if you exclude photos from your pets, a smartphone will not bring you very far if you are interested in this. You will need fast cameras and furious telephoto lenses to capture animals in their intimate moments or struggle for life. Go and look for photos of contemporary masters such as Nick Brandt from England (b. 1964), his compatriot Charlie Hamilton James (b. 1974) and Dutchman Frans Lanting (b. 1951).

Much more nearby is street photography (sometimes called candid photography), capturing human beings in their habitat and daily or not so daily occupations. Next to the already mentioned Henri Cartier-Bresson are his fellow citizen Robert Doisneau (1912 – 1994) and the Americans Walker Evans (1903 – 1975), Diana Arbus (1923 – 1971) and Robert Frank (1924 – 2019). Street photography can border on portrait photography, which is not necessarily practiced only in a photo studio. Anne Leibovitz (USA, 1949) and Richard Avedon (USA, 1923 – 2004) shoot great portraits inside and outside the studio. More extravagant are the American Man Ray (1890 – 1976) and Helmuth Newton (1920 – 2004) from Germany, who made fame through his glamorous and sensual photos. A very special form of street photography is photojournalism or press photography, aimed at telling a news story through images. Very often, this produces sad and harrowing, but intriguing visual renderings of the human condition, particularly when it concerns warlike situations or other forms of human misery. One of the first was the American Weegee (1899 – 1968), but names as Robert Capa (1913 – 1954) and Margaret Bourke-White (1904 – 1971), both from the USA, are of course equally well known. For contemporary photojournalism, follow the annual World Press Photo competition, the biggest annual photo competition in the world, founded in 1955 by the Dutch Association of Photojournalists. A very versatile photojournalist is Reza Degathi (Iranian-French, b. 1952), who works for National Geographic and also excels in landscape photography.

So more than enough themes to choose from, which of course does not make it easier! Personally, it took me some time to determine what suited me best, I went from architecture, via landscape and portraits to street photography and back to architecture and now street photography. Trying out different themes and finding out what suits you best (and brings the best results, of course!), seems to be the best recipe, applying the motto “if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it”! Street photography, for instance, requires a specific attitude that not everyone has because after all, you are to a certain extent an intruder into the life of most people unknown to you when in the street you move up to them and ‘snatch’ their images! Personally, I find the challenge to find a balance between being somewhat intrusive – which you have to be! – and being too modest an exciting exercise, but not all of us feel comfortable with that.

Sometimes qualified as a separate photographic theme, “black and white” merits some attention. For me, it is not a theme as such, but more a way of photographic vision, which can give a special artistic quality to photos. Black and white transcend the traditional photographic themes, as it may not only produce aesthetic results in for instance portrait photography but certainly also has the capacity to record spectacular images of landscapes, architecture and of course street photography. On top of that, for me personally there is an extra, more emotional reason to value black and white: when I took up photography over 50 years ago, black and white was the only affordable way of developing and printing photos yourself. I will never forget the many hours that I have spent in a darkroom seeing a black and white image slowly emerging on a sheet of photo paper in the developer bath! Therefore, what Robert Frank observed on black and white photography for me remains an important motto for a photographer: “Black and white are the colours of photography. To me, they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected”.

Taking a step back at the end of this article, it is maybe time to ask myself, how do I view photography generally, why does it make me tick? Trying to see things differently than other people and trying to create something artistic and aesthetically attractive is certainly an important driving force, as is experiencing the beauty of photography in the work of others. Deeper motivations exist, and these are expressed brilliantly by two well-known photographers: “My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.” (Steve McCurry, USA, 1950) and “The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong. It gives me both a point of connection and a point of separation.” (Susan Meiselas, USA, 1948).

By taking a photo, we freeze time and as such every photo is a unique product. However, do not assume there is the truth behind that product, or as Richard Avedon put it: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” But try to find that elusive “decisive moment” and in doing so be modest, but not too modest, because you have to continue to believe that what Diane Arbus said also goes for yourself: “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”

2020.02.13 / 14:33
Onno Kervers
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