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Reviews of photography products that enhance the enjoyment of taking pictures. Published frequently but irregularly.

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23 April 2013

You might think sailing through the photography-themed sites every day would make you a better photographer. That's their (and our) promise, after all. But of the dozens of clicks that could take you places, fewer than a handful regularly do.

Those handful -- without exception -- are small operations run by a single person who has a long background in the profession. You follow them much as if you were an apprentice, soaking up the wisdom (and learning from the follies).

Most, though, are page-view mills, putting up teasers day after day to get you to visit the site for what often turns out to be nothing more than a very short blurb. "Made you look," might be their slogan. You can dispense with them (and avoid the annoying ads) by subscribing to their RSS feeds and just reading the item description. You won't bother looking as much when you know what the tease is about.

So, apart from visiting those trusted sources, how do you develop your photographic mind?


There are a lot of approaches that do yield results. Let's outline a few of them:

  • Take pictures. Yes, the obvious one. If you don't practice the craft, you don't hit any walls and if you don't hit any walls, you don't learn how to scale them. Running into a technical problem these days is not the frustration it once was. You can research the answer as soon as you can get your hands on a connected keyboard. Stumble and learn to fly over the obstacles.
  • Go to museums and galleries. This one may be obvious, too, but about as obvious as "take your medicine." Nobody enjoys galleries and museums, do they? Well, yes, they do. We ourselves do very much, in fact, which is why we publish gallery and museum reviews. They provide a quiet moment to consider a body of work by someone else. To see through their eyes. And all you have to do is ask yourself which ones resonate with you and which ones don't. That will begin an enlightening conversation.
  • Read widely. Involves the eyes but it isn't obvious. And no, we're not back to the page-view sites. We're talking about the things people are talking about at the virtual water color. They will illuminate your view of the world beyond the spotlight of your own vision.


That last one needs an example to save it from being so vague you forget.

The other day, we happened on an article by Eric Kandel in the New York Times, titled What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art. That's on our beat, so we read the piece.

Kandel has recently published The Age of Insight, "focusing on portraiture, because we are now beginning to understand how our brains respond to the facial expressions and bodily postures of others."

In this piece he sums that up:

So how does our brain respond to portraiture? As we look at a portrait, our brain calls on several interacting systems to analyze contours, form a representation of the face and of the body, analyze the body's motion, experience emotion, and perhaps, empathy. Along with these instantaneous responses, we form a theory of the subject's state of mind.

Kodak once (when it was in the photography business) calculated that 70 percent of all snapshots were of people. The thrill of being able to peer into someone's mind may be why we not only like to look at pictures of other people but why we don't like our own taken (another finding). And why, too, we take them.

And being cognizant of that dynamic when you shoot, will give you a different approach to portraiture than merely considering lighting ratios, say.

But keep reading.

You'll run across Olivier Laurent's Protecting the Right to Photograph, or Not to Be Photographed in the New York Times' Lens blog. There you'll learn about France's Article 9 declaration that "everyone has the right to respect for his or her private life." Laurent is an editor at the British Journal of Photography .

Article 9 has been blamed for the death of street photography in the country that invented it. We pointed you to one famous story illustrating that in our April 9 Around The Horn piece.

But shooting people in public is generally (in other countries) regarded as fair game. Laurent quotes Nick Turpin, who runs photo workshops:

"I could be photographing a couple kissing while they shouldn't be kissing," he said. "But if they are doing it in a public place, it's a risk that they're running. It's not the responsibility of the photographer. When I shoot commercially, though, I have a strong responsibility not to misrepresent the people that I'm picturing and not to associate them with a product without their permission. There's a line I can't cross."

So now there's a movement to do away with Article 9, Laurent explains in the blog entry, spearheaded by France's new minister of culture, Aurelie Filippetti, who finds it "unacceptable to prevent professional photographers from sharing their vision of the world with future generations."

She explains:

"Without them, our society doesn't have a face," she said. "Because of this law, we run the risk of losing our memory. This is even more unacceptable when you consider what's going on online, where millions of images circulate without us knowing how they were taken and in what circumstances. Just to think that Cartier-Bresson or Josef Koudelka would have been prevented from doing their work is unbearable."

Ah, there you go. Put the two pieces together. A society without a face is a society about which we cannot "form a theory of the subject's state of mind."

And that's something to think about when you're walking down the street, your camera ready at your side.

But, wait, keep reading.

And you'll run across Emilio Morenatti's essay Amputated photographer: Hope for Boston survivors. Morenatti, an Associated Press photographer, lost a leg below the knee in 2009 in Afghanistan when he was embedded with U.S. troops for two weeks.

He candidly details his shock and determined recovery but doesn't paper over the difficulty. As he describes the frustration, you realize it's the part of the story not often told. Life changes but we're fairy-taled into believing everything will be fine again. We can leave these victims (ever notice how few follow-up stories there are for disaster victims?) and move on to the story of the next ones.

As Morenatti explains:

If those maimed in Boston were to ask me what was harder, the physical or psychological recovery, I would say the two go hand-in-hand.

At first I thought it was enough to recover physically, and that learning to walk and work again would naturally produce a psychological recovery.

I was wrong.

He cites his family and friends and fellow amputees before he goes on:

And then there was my camera.

The very instrument that had gotten me into this mess, if you will, became my inspiration and part of my salvation. I carried it with me all the time to photograph the recovery of my hospital mates and to test my own. It took a lot of practice to be able to look through the lens and maintain my balance while walking, as I had done before the amputation.

The beneficiaries of Morenatti's vision, perhaps, are not just the survivors of the Boston bombing. We can all learn something from his story.


The attraction of portraiture as exploring the "subject's state of mind," the role of street photography in depicting "the face of society," the sobering aftermath of a photographer's life after amputation -- these are not the seminal texts of any photography course.

But reading widely is one of the ways -- perhaps the most neglected -- you can improve your craft. It's kneading your soul into something more than a figurative lump. And that, we suspect, is important to you because, well, you read this far.

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