How I thought about photography nearly 20 years ago

Here is an essay I wrote in May 1996 about my interest in photography. Photographs back then were taken on film and developed and printed in photo laboratories or in my darkroom. 

I trace my interest in being creative to the time I started photography. At school when I was 16 years old, I borrowed some darkroom equipment (enlarger, developing tank and trays) so I could process my own black and white films. At school I was very much a Maths and Science person, and detested studying English.   However, Photography is an activity I have enjoyed since I was ten years old.

Click the links in the article to open Wikipedia articles to learn more about photographers, film and cameras.

Photography was something I had being doing since I was ten years old when my grandparents gave me a Kodak 104 Instamatic camera for my birthday. [I wrote about this in another blog article]. With that camera, I took photographs of family members and holiday places.

My father had a Minolta SRT-101 single lens reflex camera and took mostly colour slides. I used his camera for black and white work and did a lot of photography for my school. Portraits for the school magazine, candid photos of students and teachers (often humorous), drama, and sport.

At university I experimented with a variety of colour transparency films, and black and write and attempted a variety of subjects. I particularly enjoyed photographing sunsets, and landscapes, mostly on my grandparents’ farm near Geelong in Victoria.

In 1980 at the age of 22, I went for my first overseas holiday – Europe and England. I shot 18 rolls of 36 exposure Ektachrome color slide film. Looking back at those slides, they have next to no artistic merit.

In 1981 I decided to do a photography course, thinking the secret to success as a photographer was a matter of refining my technique. I enrolled in a Photography as Art course at the Hornsby technical college [now a TAFE]. The course was one evening a week for three hours, and consisted of darkroom work, informal lessons/discourses by the teacher and some portraiture sessions. The teacher was Christine Cornish – a well established photographer who has exhibited a lot of her work.

The greatest challenge for me, the mathematician and computer science practitioner, was tackling the assignments because they were open to my interpretation unlike a maths assignment, for example: “Textures” and “A Day in the Life”. I struggled with their implementation but came up with some interesting work. The textures assignment was close up photos of the trunks of gum trees and leaves. I was very pleased with the results.

My early days of black and white photography involved fiddling around with darkroom trickery such as solarisation, negative (reversal) printing, cropping and super enlargement of small parts of the negative. I remember the teacher asking me why I cropped part of the negative. I didn’t know what she meant but what I had done was to crop the image of the 35 mm negative frame (24 x 36 mm)  to fit the sheet of paper (10 x 8 inches). The aspect ratio of the frame and the paper are different, and she suggested printing the frame in its entirety even though I wouldn’t be using the whole frame. The important point is that the photo is composed in the viewfinder, so it should be printed in its entirety.

My second overseas trip to Greece at the end of 1981 was far more satisfying aesthetically, and despite minimal luggage (backpack), I took two Minolta camera bodies and one 55 mm lens. One camera was for black and white and other was for colour transparencies. Just using this one lens meant that I didn’t do tricks with a zoom lens and just photographed what I saw.

A major benefit of the course was access to the college library where I found an abundance of books – not the technical books, but works by the greats of photography. I discovered some magnificent, inspiring work by Ansel Adams,  Minor White, Duane Michals (who combines small essays with sequences of images), Diane Arbus and Imogen Cunningham.

Of great impact was the work of Aaron Siskind who photographed walls of peeling paint and billboards. I am always attracted to photographing walls and buildings in closeup and found many subjects in Greece, from marble structures in Delphi and Olympia to the modern architecture of Greek cities.

I continued into the second year of the course with another teacher, Greg Weight, who gave a different perspective to approaching photography as art.

Portraiture fascinates me and the essence to a portrait is bringing out the subject of the person, perhaps through facial gestures or the context of the subject. Richard Avedon is a master of the portrait, as is Annie Liebovitz and Arnold Newman. [I visited an exhibition of Annie Liebowitz’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art a few years ago].

The tools for successful photography include the following:-

a) basic technical knowledge of how to use a camera with particular emphasis on measuring exposure.

b) Quality equipment suitable for the task at hand. For that reason, I purchased a second-hand Rolleiflex 120 twin lens reflex because I wanted the resolution of the larger 120 film size.

c) suitable  film. Black and white I use Kodak TMAX 400, or Fujichrome 100 or Ektachrome 100 transparency film. I did not like Kodachrome film despite the popularity of the Paul Simon song.

d) a knowledge of composition. This comes with experience and intuition despite the books of formulas of compositions which should only be treated as guidelines

e) an awareness of “the decisive moment“. This term was coined by Henry Cartier-Bresson. In a world of continuous action and change, there will be a moment in time when the composition elements combine to create a powerful image. Look at a selection of sports photos for examples.

I think the question “what makes a great photograph?” got me thinking about art, creativity and aesthetics. How can I make a great photograph? What are the secrets?

It was the journey of exploration of different photographers that led me to exploring the field of Creativity. I went to exhibitions in Sydney and Canberra, borrowed every book possible to browse their works, and continued to practice and experiment.

The beauty of photography is that results can be achieved quickly, not like writing a feature-length novel. An image can be captured in seconds and prints or transparency produced quickly. Often I have attempted to copy the style or spirit of a photographer and this has produced some satisfactory results, eg the building textures.

I am particularly interested in extracting the essence of a place or “spirit of place” when I am travelling. When I am visiting a new place, I take my time to explore the area to try to distil the essence into an image.

Having fantastic equipment doesn’t turn a person into a great photographer, in the same way that owning a grand piano doesn’t turn its owner into a concert pianist. Of course it is important to have quality equipment, but it is the creativity and skill (two separate attributes) of the photographer that gets the results. One of my pet hate statements is “That’s a great photograph, what type of camera did you use?”. As if owning a Nikon produces pictures of greater artistic merit than a Zenit or Leica camera. Can you imagine asking Picasso: “That’s a great painting, Pablo…what type of brush did you use?”.

Photography serves two purposes for me.

  • The first is a visual diary and a means of recording the growth of my children and life events (birthdays, Christmas, etc).
  • The second is a means of artistic expression and involves putting myself into a special frame of mind. I find it nearly impossible to mix the two methods, so I either have my pocket camera or the Rolleiflex.

Author: charuzu

I live in Sydney and interests include music, piano playing, technology, cooking, English language, public speaking, Toastmasters, Asian culture (especially Japan and Korea), cinema, personal development, productivity and making friends with people from around the world.

5 thoughts on “How I thought about photography nearly 20 years ago”

  1. Very interesting write up about photography and what it means to you. Have to agree with you there, that an expensive camera doesn’t necessarily guarantee “wow” shots. At the end of the day, it depends on how the photographer sees the world and what they make of it. There is the technical side of photography and the creative side of it, and both are challenging in their own aspects.

  2. It is interesting that you discuss this topic this time as I have just we rediscovered photography myself due to a friend in the San Francisco Bay area who has become very good at taking nature photos (his specialty seems to be birds, encountered mountain lions, and deer on the hoof).

    Back in the 1980s I had a Pentax set up which I used to take pictures of my teenage kids at the time and scenery as well. I got too busy to do much photography and sold that camera set u. Now I’m now resurrecting I photography skills along with making videos out of slideshows etc. So, this should be fun!

  3. Charles, I continue to be amazed by your wide range of interests and talents. Although we’ve taken many of the same MOOCs, I didn’t get to learn much about your life at that time. I’m so glad I’m following your blog as it gives me a chance to keep in touch and learn more about you. My brother is an avid photographer. He had his own dark room in the basement of our house when he was a teenager (he’s now 72) and he, too, took all the photos for the high school yearbooks. Unfortunately, I have never developed the “eye” for taking good photographs, but I hope to start painting in acrylics soon. I look forward to your next blog post.

  4. I really like your comparison of the photographer and the pianist. I am interested in photography now, but in this age where I can download my photos un digital and edit the colours / turn into black and white to my liking, this sounds so far away and so EASY compared to photography 20 years ago. I have not tried portrait photography yet as I’m afraid of not being able to capture the essence and character of the person. Yet.
    Thanks for commenting on my comment in Mabel’s blog, I’ve been able to find your blog and words. Cheers!

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