Our society likes pictures.
We take pictures of ourselves. Our children. Our houses. Our vacations. Our food. Our pets. Our friends. Our triumphs. Our failures. We’ll take pictures of pretty much anything. Every 2 minutes we take more pictures than all of humanity captured in the 19th century. According to numbers recently released by Facebook, we have uploaded about 240 billion photos: that’s about 17,000 times as many pictures than are archived in the entire Library of Congress.
And so the question emerges: in a world where nearly everyone has a camera, what, if anything, separates a “photographer” from someone who takes a snapshot with their phone or DSLR? Has the pervasive nature of technology transformed the art of photography into the art of being in the “right place at the right time?”
The weakness of this argument is its claim that photography is solely the mechanical action of taking a picture. A photographer is not defined in the instant they release the camera’s shutter: they are defined by the journey that led to that moment. They are defined by the paradigm through which they see the world and by their deep-set need to experience the world through a lens.
A photographer is far more fascinated with the question on the face of a museum goer pondering the Mona Lisa than they are with taking a quick shot of Mona’s enigmatic smile and posting it to Facebook.
A photographer will certainly join the dozens of camera-phone-wielding family members to capture the moment the bride walks down the aisle, but what he really cherishes is the sidelong smile he caught 5 minutes earlier between the young bride and her big sister.
A photographer is able to put one eye up to a small glass window and see a story come to life.
Hillsdale Professor of Art and Photography Doug Coon has been a photographer for almost 40 years, shooting in all kinds of scenarios and teaching students how to do the same. He calls this trait of photographers “a different way of seeing things.” He says he can often spot those with an artistic inclination because “they stare at things for an abnormally long amount of time.”
“They just have a different way of seeing things than your average Joe,” he said.
Coon says he can teach “just about anybody” how to take a decent photo, but the but there is a step beyond simply “decent” that has nothing to do with him.
“I can help and offer suggestions,” he said. “But it really has to do with them: the artist.”
The title “artist” is one that our culture is more and more hesitant to apply to photography. Many now attribute beautiful photography to the quality of a photographer’s equipment: as though an expensive camera is what defines a good photographer.
Coon says many people, believing they are paying him a compliment, praise the merits of his art by marveling at how good his camera must be.
“Sure, it’s not a bad camera, but it doesn’t jump out of the bag and point itself,” Coon said. “It’s just a tool. People have this mindset that technology fixes everything: if they can just get the right ‘thing’ everything will be hunky dory.”
In the hands of an artist, a camera is not merely a tool for documenting an event. Much as a plain brush comes to life in the hands of a painter, the cold, hard plastic and metal that form a camera awakens when it is cradled in the grip of a photographer’s hands. Many find that photography is not just something they do, but instead is a crucial part of who they are.
Acclaimed editorial photojournalist David Handschuh found himself running through the mayhem permeating New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001, camera in hand. In an American Photo profile, Handschuh described the moment when buildings collapsed around him: “I was unable to breathe because my mouth was filled with powdered concrete. I thought I was going to die.” Though surrounded by chaos and destruction, Handschuh’s devotion to his art remained unwavering.
“After they dug me out I actually took several frames even though I’d lost my glasses when I got trapped. I still managed to see some movement in front of me and take some pictures.”
Handschuh’s actions show the heart of a photographer. They illustrate, in a graphic fashion, how the art form is deeply ingrained upon a photographer. Photography becomes more than documentation, more than a vocation: it becomes an imperative.
Freshman Jacob Shalkhauser, a photographer for External Affairs, is well acquainted with this imperative. When asked to describe why he needed photography in his life, he paused for just a moment before quietly saying, “Sometimes I think better through the lens of my camera than the lens of my eye.”
What Shalkhauser is describing is not unique to him.
In an artist’s hands, a camera lens becomes a gateway through which the photographer is able to understand the world around them more completely. Through that understanding they are able to share something that the world may never have known.
Though technology has given the majority of the world the ability to share and cherish images, that development has not stripped photography of its art.
Next time you are in the midst of a crowd of tourists or any large collection of people taking pictures, take a moment to look around you.
Watch for the one person who is looking at things differently. Perhaps they are looking at something no one else is. Perhaps they are fixated some small aspect of the scene.
Look for that “abnormally long” stare. In that moment of silence the artist is at work: the world will know them as a “photographer” when they raise their camera to their eye, but their title was claimed in the moments before.