Listening to a podcast the other day the host, who had apparently been asked by a listener for advice on “how to become a writer”, gave an answer first saying -and I’m paraphrasing this – “First we must ask ourselves a few other questions before we can answer that one.”
“Do you read a lot? Do you read what you write? Do you read what other people have written?”
This made me ask myself whether these questions can be applied to being a photographer?
Do you look at a lot of photographs? Do you look at your own photographs? Do you look at other people’s photographs?
These are fine questions; we all seem to be out making lots of exposures. Some of my digital friends brag about making thousands of exposures in a day! I’ve always had a hard time editing the few hundred exposures I make a year.
I would contend that with a thousand exposures a day there is no way to look at – and I mean really look at – all of them. We see lots of imagery, it’s all around us, but do we really look at it? One might argue successfully that maybe most of it is not really worth looking at, which is beside the point.
I looked up what the average time a person spends in front of a piece of art work at a museum. According to Google, a study done in 2001 found that the average time was seventeen seconds. Seventeen seconds! And most of that time the person spent reading the writing on the wall next to the piece of art work. I can only imagine what the average time someone spends swiping with their thumbs while diddling on their phones looking at digital imagery.
Here is an exercise I recommend; get a pile of your prints and an easel. Set the easel in a well-lit area; pull up a stool and a beverage of choice. Then put a print on the easel and start the timer on your phone for two minutes and look at each of your images for the duration of the time. When the time is up, place the next image on the easel, hit the timer and start again.
Doing this for the first time was an eye opener for me, even though I’d spent hours looking at the image, while composing, exposing, processing, printing and mounting. It seems once completed prints become invisible and there is so much that we can learn from carefully reading our own work. Is the composition the best we could have done? What about the lighting? What about the tones and values in the print? Does the image still sing to you like it did the day you exposed it, or if you’re honest with yourself, is it a boring print, even if it was well made. Only by sitting down with your work can you tell if you are speaking the truth with your prints.
After all, as visual artists how can we possibly expect others to spend more than a few seconds looking at our images if we ourselves can’t even look at our own work?
The host of the podcast argued that if we don’t read a lot, read our own work, and read the work of others, then we are not a writer but rather someone who likes to write. A writer is someone who is reading a lot, reading what others are saying and wants to write to contribute to the conversation of the other writers.
So, are you a photographer?
James A. Kipfer