Pictures Are Not About Pictures

 Kealaikahiki Point, Kaho‘olawe, Hawai‘i Black and White
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.

Make your lens tell the truth

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.

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  • John Ellsworth

    David’s comments ring so true in terms of what I believe image making is about—an expression of the artist, first. Such a view point, if subscribed to, should really free up a photographer from the some of the constrictions sometimes created by rules, vendor marketing, expectations of others, submitting juried photos, self doubt, etc.

  • Hollyhorner

    Very well put!

  • Roberta

    It’s so true, we have to ask ourselves when we turn our equipment on, “why am I taking this photo?”  Obviously there is something in our field of view that speaks to us, the photographer, can we capture the essence and communicate what we saw.  Technology is wonderful and provides tons of flexibility but the eyes of the photographer see, the camera does not.

  • Tccpaint

    A Great photographic work of art should result from the eye and mind behind the camera!
    Sometimes we depend on tools and forget our main objective. 

  • Ken Webb

    The Master Photographer Arnold Newman said it this way; “Great photographs are not the products of great cameras or lenses. Great photographs are the products of great minds, hearts, and stomachs.”
    Henri Cartier-Bresson said it another way; “Photography is nothing—it’s life that interests me.”

  • Nick Friend

    Another great article, David.  

    “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.”

    Very inspirational and let me just say that I’m really glad you’re on the judging panel for the Go Lyve Print Contest.

  • Kurt Jensen

    David gives me a lot to think about as a photographer and artist.  It’s a great article which deserves or even demands that the reader stop and think deeply about it.  My take for a long time has been this — “it’s tough for artistic photographers to do much more than make ‘pretty pictures’ ” (which is not to say that they dont evoke emotions in the viewer), but that other artistic mediums like painting and sculpture give the artist more latitude to embed meaning, symbolism, emotional and intellectual depth.  Photographers generally just shoot whats in front of them, the world.  Sure we can do a lot of work in studio to create new and novel work, but most photographers just wander out into the world and shoot what’s there.  Sometimes it’s evocative, sometimes it’s just nice to look at, but searching for meaning in a piece would seem like an exercise in watching grass grow.

    But David seems to be saying, don’t just take that part of photography for granted (pretty pictures with no real meaning) … strive for more and dig deeper.  I will definitely take this “kick in the butt” and try to do just that.

  • Anonymous

    Wow David, thanks for this great perspective on the art of photography, very thought provoking.  

  • Lorenzo Aguayo

    Ansel Adams said, “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” 

    • Breathing Color

      Great quote Lorenzo!

  • William Espada

    Great description of what it takes to make a photograph. Thank you

  • Karen Bell

    Dear David, Blast from the past here, Miss Karen Bell. Hi, David! How are you?  Jeez, I’m sitting in your living room in Lincoln (?), 1981 hearing the same way of working, where ever you go there you are, lol.  Monsieur Magritte & my first Armagnac. We had a bunch of fun at those workshops, some of my best memories and lessons. I abandoned photography for a lot of years, nothing to say I wanted said but I do now & circumstances have led me to a digital class @ Museum School CE. Erik Benjamins.  Do you have my email from this forum? I have some questions I’d like to ask you about contacting some people . Later, Karen Justine Bell on FB