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Book Review
On Being a Photographer
by Bill Jay/David Hurn

Keith Cooper reviews 'A Practical Guide'

Whilst most of the books on Keith's shelves are about photographic techniques, or collections of photos, this is one of a smaller group that address some of the more general aspects of photography.

Indeed, the edition he owns (3rd, 7th Printing) contains not a single photograph.

The edition that Keith's discussing here is a short 140 page paperback one

On Being a Photographer
- a practical guide

First up, there is not a single mention of choosing aperture or shutter speed.

Nothing about film or lens choices.

Nothing about print making.

Nothing about the technicalities of the Zone System...

So, what's practical about it?

The book is a transcribed/edited version of conversations between two photographers, who between them have a great deal of experience of how to 'make it' in the world of photography - what is meant by calling yourself a photographer.

digital black and white logoFYI: I've set up a LinkedIn group (~6600 members) for people interested in all aspects of Digital Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

David Hurn (Wikipedia entry) is best know as a documentary photographer and was elected a member of Magnum in 1967.

There's quite a bit of historical information in the book, both from the perspective of how David Hurn got into photography and even a chapter on the future of photography, written from a time when digital and the web were starting to make more of an impact.

For myself the real importance of the book comes from its emphasis of the importance of subject in images, and images taken for a purpose.

Whilst written from a documentary perspective, many of the suggestions are relevant to whatever field interests you.

There is a strong emphasis on having a reason for what you are doing, whether a project of some nature, or even to practice some technical aspect of your photography. The importance of choice of subject is emphasised again and again.

As an ex academic (not related to photography) I can relate to the many disparaging remarks directed at aspects of 'academic criticism' and the stultifying effect it can have on anyone looking to take good photos. There is the apposite observation that successful photographers don't become academics - they may sometimes teach, but their photography is usually for a purpose, and that includes eating and paying the bills.

Ah, good photos... what are they?

There is a reassuring admission of the element of luck, but it's backed by looking at the importance of looking through all your contact sheets (or Lightroom/Bridge/Aperture these days) and seeing how you approached a particular subject.

'Take more photos' is something I always tell people who ask, but here it's refined to emphasise the importance of doubt, the process of taking more photos to see what could be that little bit better, and looking at ones that didn't work from a 'what could be better' perspective. It's one reason I never delete photos in camera - I want to see the whole process - screw-ups and all.

One thing that rings very true for me, is the observation that:

  • "Bad photographers have many excuses! And what I mean by 'bad photographers' is that no-one is interested in looking at their images..."

Discussing brushes

On many a forum I've seen it suggested that artists don't discuss brushes, whilst photographers discuss lenses and cameras.

As someone who's known numerous artists, I know that technique is actually discussed quite a lot.

The book makes the observation that when starting out, photographers talk about equipment and technique, then there comes a middle phase where equipment talk is seen as giving the 'impression that the photographer is less artistic' - this leads to such utter nonsense as 'a good photographer can use any camera to take a photo'.

It's good to read in the book, that when successful photographers get together they do indeed discuss equipment again - the importance of the right tool for the job shouldn't be underestimated.

The book finishes off debunking a number of pernicious photographic myths, that any aspiring photographer would do well to note.

These include the observations that:

Moving on

Are you at a loss what to go out and take photos of? Do your photos lack a reason to take them?

It's difficult to say exactly what I learned reading the book, but it's subtly altered many of my perceptions about what I take photos of and why.

One difficulty that I as a working photographer face, is that many of my paid jobs are relatively uninspiring - now that doesn't mean I can't explore my ways of creating images that please clients, but it limits where I can go.

This book has helped me think more clearly about personal projects - ones that have a use and are not just a cover for lack of paying work (as many 'projects' are in reality).

The book is a useful antidote to some of the pretentious academic rubbish I read in connection with photography - an excellent present for anyone thinking of going to college to study photography.

Buying the book

The book is listed at Amazon US and UK (electronic versions available)

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Book details

Review History - first published July 2011

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