From the Archive: Don’s Editorial, Photo Review Issue 9 Feb/Mar 2003


From the Archive: Don’s Editorial, Photo Review Issue 9 Feb/Mar 2003
The photographic eye. You can’t buy it and some would say you can’t even learn it, but if experience is any guide, you just might be able to earn it.
ø¢â‚¬ËœI wish I could take photos like that,’ sighed my friend. We were looking over the layouts for the Simon O’Dwyer and Marti Freidlander features in this issue and both feeling a little humbled.

ø¢â‚¬ËœI never seem to be in the right place at the right time,’ she added wistfully. It’s a sentiment I think most keen amateur photographers will understand very well. Since joining this magazine, it’s been my good fortune to interview around 20 very talented photographers.

The wellspring and the evolution of each photographer’s way of seeing are of course unique and quite individual. But there are recurring themes as well. How these common points of reference may bear on the development of a creative vision is not necessarily obvious, but such patterns are nevertheless interesting:

Start young
Most of the photographers I’ve interviewed took their first pictures when they were between 8 and 12 years of age. Interestingly, most can remember something about their earliest images and quite a few were able to recall specific images in considerable detail. Most continued to take pictures from then on, but a significant minority lost interest for a time and returned to the camera when they were in high school.
Surround yourself with images
Every photographer could easily list a dozen photographers whose work they admired (and whose books they owned). Many were raised in homes that either had a keen amateur photographer in the household or someone with a strong interest in the visual arts. It also helps to have a childhood well supplied with books of photographs and illustration-rich magazines.

Love the process
All the photographers began their love affair with photography before the digital era arrived. In almost every instance they not only took pictures from an early age, they also started learning the techniques of film processing and darkroom work in their teens. Even those who now do most of their post-capture work on a computer recall with affection and a little nostalgia the hundreds of hours spent patiently dodging, burning, developing, fixing and drying prints.

Master your tools
The best photographers have the same attitude toward their equipment as a carpenter or mechanic has to his or her tools. The camera, the lights and all the other paraphernalia in the kit bag must be mastered. But the equipment is never an end in itself.

Find a mentor
Many of my interview subjects attended a photographic course of some description at one point in their lives. But, whether they had a formal course or not, to a person the interviewees could all point to at least one mentor. Sometimes it was a teacher, but almost as often it was someone encountered early in their working career. The subject of mentors is easily big enough for its own article, but this much one can say of a good mentor: their expectations are frighteningly high and they don’t pull their punches when it comes to criticism.

Have a restless eye
When you ask them, many of the best photographers will tell you that it is second-nature to look at the world in a photographic way. Portraitists are always scouting the backgrounds, landscape shooters are watching the ever-changing play of light and weather, documentary photographers watch the world with a choreographer’s sensitivity to movement and pattern. Even when they aren’t trying, they keep seeing possible photographs. But all of them are besotted with light and shadow and I don’t think any are ever completely unaware of it.

Focus and more focus
Like great athletes or fine musicians, the best photographers are capable of sustained and intense effort. Whether they shoot just one or two images at a time or burn through hundreds of frames in a day, good photographers often become great because they are just a little obsessive. Personal photographic projects that stretch over months or years are common. So too are 16-hour days and minimal incomes. But if you’re serious about your calling, that’s how it is.

If it illustrates anything, the foregoing mainly underlines the truth of that old saw about genius being one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. We lesser mortals may not have much scope for enlarging our share of the former quantity, but we can certainly do something about the latter.
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