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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.

 

 

 

                        slichti@hillsdale.edu