Kealaikahiki Point, Kaho‘olawe, Hawai‘i © David Ulrich
Pictures Are Not About Pictures
During a recent public photo critique sponsored by Pacific New Media at the University of Hawai‘i, I came to several interesting observations about the contemporary photography industry. All of the people participating in the critique had a serious interest in photography, followed recent trends in the medium, and seemed to have some awareness of equipment and technique. Without exception, these were serious folks who embodied the true meaning of the word amateur, which from the French means “lover”. They loved the medium and its expressive possibilities.
As people alternatively showed and talked about their work, one nagging observation came to the forefront of my mind: pictures are not about pictures. They are about something. They are not just about the skill of the photographer, or the camera and lens, and not about the mode of presentation. They reveal a point of view, they highlight something about the world, or they reflect our inner states of being or something of our particular life conditions. They have meaning that can be decoded and that can evoke something in the viewer.
I wondered as people spoke of their images, how they were made, what they were striving for, whether they could read or even see the meanings embedded in their own images beyond the camera and lens choice, or the compositional decisions about making a “better” picture.
Make your lens tell the truth
Contemporary advertising—including that by photography vendors—appeals to the emotion, hunger, and desire of the viewer. We are told that the “right” camera, the perfect lens, the magic software, or the largest possible number of pixels can soothingly make everything alright, can transform a mundane vision into a masterpiece, and can somehow replace the need for an alert mind, an open heart, and quickness of perception. “Make your lens tell the truth.” “Look what you can do.” “Picture perfect.” These are all taglines from recent ad campaigns by photography vendors.
Sorry. The best photographs have taught us that your own eyes, not the camera, are what make an image unique and compelling. Many great pictures were made by run-of-the-mill average or even low-cost cameras. Many great pictures have broken the rules reflecting a genuinely unique perspective or a new, highly personal view of ordinary subject matter. And many great pictures say something, reflecting meaning about the world and/or the unique truth of oneself to the viewer.
Sugar Cane Burn, Maui, HI © David Ulrich
Rules of composition, like the “thirds” rule, and aggressive post-processing or the glitzy views of the world promoted by contemporary culture, and in turn by the photo industry, do not make pictures that contribute anything meaningful to the world—or to oneself for that matter. Self knowledge, an active interest in the world, and an active interest in people is one of the great ongoing human aims, and is fundamental to a whole, meaningful life. Now these aims stand among the greatest subjects for pictures.
It is one’s developing vision that is paramount to becoming a successful, contributing artist. It is one’s heart and mind, coupled with skill and solid technique that can spring your vision to life. Several images in the critique moved me, astonished me, or brought me to a fresh or humorous or deep understanding of something. Yes, pictures are about something. Can the camera, the software, the technique, or the print media become transparent? Can they become vehicles for our developing vision? Can the growth of our craft become a flowing river through which the currents of our understanding and worldview can be expressed?
There are so many exciting possibilities today for genuinely expressing something of our growing vision: Blurb books, great high-end cameras, plastic cameras, cell phone cameras, great print and canvas surfaces, and imaging software with hugely expressive possibilities, where, if you can think it, you can do it. Let’s put the emphasis on our vision first, and allow the rest, even the idea of a good picture, to flow from that one fundamental fact— the exploration of the question of how we see the world. The pictures that grow from this place; these are the pictures that matter.