My first vacation read this summer was a book about photography. Having a new camera, I am of course eager to learn how to use it properly. I´m not sure how I found "On Being a Photographer - A Practical Guide" by David Hurn/MAGNUM and Bill Jay, but I´m sure it was recommended on some photography blog or other.
This book has no information on how to use a camera. At all. This is a relief in a vacation read; technical books are very tiring to read, but necessary, of course. What they do talk about, though (and I mean talk, most of the book is Jay interviewing Hurn), is how to focus your photography, how to become mindful of what kind of images you are looking for. It´s about organizing yourself, thinking and acting like a photographer. Or even as a human being, actually. In the introduction they say: "...photography is about life. We both agree with the psychologist Abraham Maslow that the purpose of life is to become actually what we are potentially. We believe photography offers an ideal vehicle towards this destination."
After spending a weekend surrounded by artists and their critics, I have been thinking a lot about what art is, and perhaps it is all about that journey towards self-knowledge. Sure, a photograph isn´t necessarily art, but neither is a painting or a drawing. Much of what is categorized as art is mostly decoration, some is illustration, some is communication. Is a comic book art? It can be, but it might not. A fashion illustration might also be art, but then again, it might not. So much is about context, presentation, and how it is recieved. This is what Hurn/Jay thinks: "Art is not the medium or style but the agreed merit of a body of work created over a life-time of achievements by a dedicated individual. This body of work is likely to center around the unique characteristics of the chosen medium." I´ll have to think about that some more...
Hurn offers some hands-on advice: "The first thing to do is carry a notebook and during quiet times or as the thought occurs to you, compile a list of anything that really interests you. In other words, write a list of subjects which fascinate you without regard to photography." The thing to do, according to Hurn, to work hard with your subject, to choose something that you really engage with and want to know more about. Only then can you produce images that are of any interest, that can communicate something new. Don´t be boring, he says.
Also, they give the same advice as aspiring writers get: look at other photographers´ work. Look at movies with the eyes of a photographer. Learn from the best. Steal ideas.
A photographer´s style, Hurn says, comes from forgetting about style, and trying to capture that which he knows about his subject, and what he remembers about a particular moment. Much is about luck, being there when it happens, but one´s luck certainly increases with every hour spent with the subject. Style then, is a matter of what we - as individuals, not as photographers - observe; it´s about what is important to us. Skill is knowing how to identify it and capture it in an image.
I very much enjoyed this book, and I will read it again when I have come a bit further on this journey. Much passed me by this time, I´m sure, and might make more sense with a bit more experience. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys photography and would like to know more. I also found this great interview with David Hurn, if you are interested. And naturally, Eric Kim has read this book, with his usual systematic approach! If you want to know more about Bill Jay, I found his obituary in the Guardian - sadly.