Where to Stand, Where to Put the Edges

“There’s nothing worse than a sharp print of a fuzzy concept.” —Ansel Adams

When photographers get talking, whether in conversation, books, workshops, or lectures, the subject of “light” can take on a pervasive and nearly mystical importance. This is understandable. Light is our raw material. When Rembrandt or Vermeer present a sensuous and enveloping “feeling” for light in a painting, it is an effect created out of their mind’s eye on canvas. As photographers, we may manipulate or direct light upon the subject, but we do not create it in the print itself. If the light isn’t before the camera, it is not going to be in the photograph. It is the elemental force of our medium. We rely on our sensitivity to it, and our skill in rendering its qualities.

But it is a dangerous trap to consider the “quality of light” as the only, or even the primary goal. In the process of making a photograph, capturing the “beautiful”, the “revealing”, or simply the most “appropriate” light, is nothing more than the first opportunity not to fail. In fact, most of our photos do fail, and for a wide variety of reasons. (George Bernard Shaw said that “photographers are like the cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity”). The quality of light in a photograph is meaningless unless it helps to expresses something! This “something” might be characterized as “emotional” or “conceptual” content, or simply an “idea”. (In other words, does the photograph have anything to say?).

Concept and Execution

Making a photograph might be described as a sequence of two basic events: the initial inspiration for the image, and the subsequent rendering of that image. (Can also be thought of as the concept and the execution). The inspiration, or idea, to create a photograph is a reaction between a photographer’s perceptions, philosophy, emotions, knowledge; and the action of light upon objects. (Sometimes referred to as a photographer’s “vision”). The attraction to a particular subject may have little to do with its “literal” qualities. It’s significance may be symbolic or it may act as a catalyst, evoking a much deeper emotional response while maintaining its literal form. (Weston’s peppers come to mind).

This initial motivation, the photographer’s “vision”, (for lack of a better term), is an aspect of photography that is impossible to “teach”, and for that matter, to consciously “learn”. It is an intuitive event, and intuitive consciousness expands and grows as one experiences life and is receptive to its lessons. (This “education” takes an entire lifetime, and you never finish!). But many of the techniques that go into the actual rendering of a photograph can be taught. With the acquisition of those techniques, a craft may evolve that will enable one to express their own particular “vision”, whatever that may be.

“Technique” and “Craft”

The words “technique” and “craft” are often taken to mean the same thing, and tend to be used interchangeably. Granted, they both fall under the heading of “execution”, in that they both have to do with the physical act of rendering a photograph. But it might be useful to define and think of them as separate entities.

“Technique” refers to one’s command of the physical steps involved in a process.

We say that someone has “good technique”, meaning that they execute those steps with a high level of control and accuracy. We say someone has “bad technique” when we observe the opposite. “Technique” relates to tangible skills, and can be discussed, objectively examined, quantified, taught, and learned.

“Craft”, on the other hand, implies an organic relationship between the technical skill employed and the statement being made.

Craft requires that the photographer has a clear concept, and exercises the appropriate technical skill required to express or explore that idea. One could say that “technique” is knowing how to do something, whereas “craft”, (which certainly requires some degree of knowing how ), involves knowing when, and perhaps most importantly, why!

The techniques of exposure, development, printing, etc., are all essential. Each must be mastered to whatever degree need dictates as one develops their craft. One might be a very limited technician, yet posses excellent craft simply because their technique is exactly what’s required to convey their idea. Conversely, one might be a prodigious technician, yet have very poor craft if the application of that skill doesn’t express something. (This gets into a disturbing area: it is not uncommon for photographers with little or no conceptual base, (in other words, those with “nothing to say”), to disguise this lack of substance with a high level of technical polish. This dexterity, while indicating proficient technical command, should not be confused with craft).

But there is another aspect of the photographic process that is often overlooked (or taken for granted) in most discussions, and yet it is at the heart of photography. It is the consideration of the following questions: “Where do I stand?” and “Where do I put the edges?” These questions are the fulcrum between the initial inspiration to make a photograph, and its subsequent execution.

Where Do I Stand and What Difference Does it Make?

“Where to put the camera?” or “where to stand?” is directly concerned with establishing the linear relationships within the subject. The exact position of the lens determines the relative locations of all objects in front of the camera. The lens must occupy that one point in space from which those elements are arranged most advantageously. “Where do I put the edges?” entails two dovetailing considerations: “which information do I want to include”; and “which do I want to exclude”. The first is a relatively simple matter. You see what it is you wish to depict, and decide on the lens that gives the required optical capability.

Determining what to exclude is far more difficult. Placement of the edges is crucial to isolating the subject from the chaos surrounding it: the conflicting, the extraneous, the distracting. (To paraphrase Alfred Stieglitz: “everything in the photograph should have a reason for being there”) Any experienced photographer is aware of how infrequently all of these issues can be simultaneously and satisfactorily resolved. That is the nature of photography, which is an extractive process. (A process in which the subject is “extracted” from an existing reality; as opposed to an “additive” process like painting, or a “subtractive” process like wood, stone, or wax sculpture). There is constant compromise: the spot may be right but a wide enough angle lens lacking; the “ideal location” might be in the middle of a busy street, necessitating the selection of a less aesthetically satisfactory (but safer) one; the spot and lens might be right, but there may be an intruding element impossible to avoid which will ultimately ruin the photo. This is in large part why Shaw likened us to the cod: there are so many opportunities to fail.

The photographer’s ability to successfully resolve “where to stand” and “where to put the edges” will ultimately determine whether they succeed or fail. Anyone can get excited or inspired by something they see. It is knowing how to isolate the source of that excitement that is the first (and crucial) step which integrates the inspiration and the rendering. “Getting it down on paper”, where it can communicate to others, is achieved by applying the appropriate technique in a manner responsive to, and consistent with, the initial concept or inspiration. The process requires instinct, discipline, and practice. It is, in a word, a matter of craft.

Mark Citret