One of the reasons I took a few months off from writing was that I wanted to concentrate a bit more on the photos and less on the gear used to make them. This was not readily apparent when the hiatus struck, but it became increasingly clear as time passed. Time spent looking at photographs is far more useful for improving one’s own work than time spent looking at cameras. With so many photographs being produced and thrown haphazardly into the public eye, the real problems are first what photographs to look at, and second how to look at them.
Perusing the internet might seem like a good first step. It isn’t. The problem is not the photographs, but the editing, or more accurately the lack thereof. It’s far too easy to become overwhelmed by sheer volume and lose any sense of perspective. With so many photographs, the tendency is to just plow through them, not giving any enough time for proper consideration. It becomes a non-discriminatory blur that does nothing to make your own photography any better.
Another issue with relying on the internet for photography is the fact that you are seeing photographs on a bright screen. If a photographer is specifically producing work for that medium, fine, but most photographs (at least those made prior to the digital era) were intended as prints. Changing the medium changes the viewing experience, often fundamentally. It’s like seeing a Monet on television or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in IMAX. If you’re going to look at photographs that were intended to be seen as prints, look at them as prints.
So where to start? While exhibitions are great, photo books are a good and usually more practical option. You get a selection of printed photographs in a compact package to peruse at your leisure. More importantly, you get a set of photographs that are the result of an editorial process designed to produce a cohesive set of images. Presumably this allows not only a clearer understanding of what the photographer seeks to convey through the images, but also provides them in the original printed format. Knowing that the book is finite, the reader can linger over any given image for as long as they like, unconcerned that they’re falling behind in an endless stream of ever-accumulating material.
This brings us to the second, and far more problematic, issue: how to look at photographs. Instinct suggests a simply visceral reaction, liking or disliking an image based on its superficial qualities. This does exactly nothing for improving one’s own skills. More important is to analyze the photograph on several levels: how was it shot? why was it shot that way? what are the keys to the image being what it is? what was the photographer trying to do? did he achieve it? what does it say to me? why does it say that? how does it fit within the collected images? how could it be improved? Put simply, does it work? There’s likely no right answer to many of these questions, but that shouldn’t stop the viewer from asking them.
Understanding what you’re looking at is very different from the act of seeing. The latter is passive, while the former is active engagement with the image. Does this mean you have to, or even can, fully understand every photograph you see? Of course not. Does it mean you won’t see bad photographs or collections of photographs? Absolutely not. But you will develop a better appreciation of and a more critical eye toward photography. For anyone dedicated to improving their own work, this is necessary. It’s far too easy to fall in love with your own photographs, especially in the current positive reinforcement culture of the internet and beyond.
Question everything. The truth is out there.