Becoming a Camera
Back in the mid-1990s, when I was working for Greenspun Media Group in Las Vegas, a small rift opened up between the writers of the Las Vegas Weekly and the photographers of the Las Vegas Sun. One of the Weekly’s editorial interns wrote a blurb on digital cameras that included the sentence, “Thanks to recent advances in digital photography, you no longer need real skill to take a good photo.”
The photographers clipped the story from the Weekly’s pages, highlighted the offending portion, and taped it to the door of the photo department, which everyone — Weekly writers included — had to walk past to get to the break room. The intern began brown-bagging it after that.
Logically, I knew the intern was wrong, but emotionally it was another matter. I spent a fair amount of time around the photo department, watching the Sun’s award-winning shooters bring back one amazing shot after the other; the quality of their work was impeccable before the department switched over to digital SLR, and it remained impeccable thereafter. But in spite of this, there was a part of me that believed my own photography would improve when I got a better camera.
That part was smothered alive when I finally bought a fancy point-and-shoot. I struggled with it for a week and then took it to one of the Sun’s photographers to get some tips and advice. The photographer took the camera from me, took a cursory look at its settings, and immediately snapped a photo of me that would ultimately prove to be the best photo that camera ever took.
Photography is a learning process that eventually becomes a skill, and it’s a skill that eventually becomes a sense. A practiced guitarist can pick up any guitar in the world and play something. When I handed that Sun photographer my digital point-and-shoot those years ago, he didn’t see a miracle box that could do his work for him, or a piece of technology with a 150-page manual. He saw a guitar, and he strummed out a chord.
I don’t want to get into what it means to be a photographer. There’s plenty of writing on the subject, much of it more poetic and ambitious than I could hope to be in this piece. (One of them is “The Ongoing Moment” by Geoff Dyer; it’s an appreciation of fine photography penned by an author who doesn’t take pictures himself. You should read it.) But I am thinking about what it means to be a self-taught photographer, as I prepare to hang my photos in a friend’s West Seattle shop with price tags on them. The sad fact is that there remains a small, insistent voice in the back of my head stating that the tools did most of the work, and if the Nikon DLSR, Flickr account and Photoshop were taken away from me, I wouldn’t be able to take a good photo.
That belief, no matter how strongly or lightly held, is completely wackadoo. There’s a timeworn expression popular among photographers: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” It was true at the beginning of the 20th century, when photographers like Walker Evans began taking cameras into places where others hadn’t thought to take them before, and it’s true of the 21st, when every single day on Flickr delivers an amazing photo of the previously unseen. And we didn’t have to create thinking cameras to get here, or to become half-cyborg. All that has changed between the analog and digital eras of photography is that we began carrying our best cameras with us all the time.
Photoshop can rescue a good shot from a passable one, but in order to do that we have to know what a good shot looks like, and the surest way to learn that is by practicing with the closest available camera as often as we can, whether it’s a DSLR, a point-and-shoot, a Holga, or a cameraphone app like Hipstamatic or Vignette. The great Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange put it best when she said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” Every time you align a shot in the tiny Hipstamatic window, all that practice trains your mind to improving on what came before — it looks for better light, and stronger composition. And when you become aware that your subject is took dark or moving too quickly to make a good photo, your eye begins looking for a shot that will work. It’s not the sidearm; it was never the sidearm. It’s always been the shooter.
That simple realization transformed me. I knew I was becoming a photographer when I recognized that some of my photos would be decent photos no matter what camera had I used to take them, and I would be just as proud of them if I’d only showed them to a dozen people instead of posting them for the benefit of hundreds. I began to feel empathy with my shots. I hadn’t become a great photographer and I probably never will, but I had become good enough not to let it bother me.
Now, some 12 years, four cameras and three public showings after I handed my camera to that Sun photographer for an object lesson, I’m beginning to realize that what was once learned behavior is now becoming reflex. I am “the camera that’s with me”; having a lens, sensor and shutter in my hand only makes it official. And I’ll bet that if I were to dig that digital point-and-shoot out of that box in my office, I’d be able to use it to take a photo that’s twice as good as any I took in the camera’s heyday – a photo that strikes a chord.
PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR