On Being A Photographer – Bill Jay and David Hurn

7th February 2013

A short but very interesting book, I read it in an afternoon and for the first time whilst studying this course I actually used a highlighter to remind me to use the areas as quotes; now that’s radical.

The prose is very easy to read and follow, two friends in conversation, no images, but lots and lots of good, common sense it seems.

David Hurn has little regard for the academic fraternity,

‘Most colleges and universities do not hire the best in the field because these individuals are not full-time photographers. Teachers are in the classroom, or at meetings, most of the time so all they can do is talk about photography. So it is not surprising that in academia has arisen a peculiar type of critical theory which young photographers are expected to apply to their own work and reference when discussing the work of others.’

His attitude toward critical theory seems to be just as outrageous, but to some extent I think he’s got it right, with certain authors and critics anyway,

‘… usually critical theory is none of the above but an experience akin to wading in thick mud through a dense fog. It is no fun. The reason is that the language used by academic theorists in photography is so dense, obscure, jargon-filled and so damned dull that it is usually impossible to decipher the points that are being made.’

‘Perhaps the issues are so profound that they cannot be expressed in clear, intelligible, vivid prose? Not likely. When scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawkins, Paul Davies, Lewis Thomas and Arthur Koestler can write about theories of life’s origins, the nature of time, quantum physics, the limits of the universe, the paradoxes of evolution, and similarly complex topics, and produce books of such dazzling appeal that they are best-sellers, are we really saying that photography is so much more profound that its issues cannot be explained in clear language?’

I think the thing is though that the question should be, what, if anything, have I taken from this book?

The section on ‘Selecting A Subject’ makes it very clear that unless you have a definite, defined subject, with clearly limited objectives (and by that I don’t mean limited in extent but scope) then it becomes impossible to make any body of work that has a thread with connection and meaning.

‘Every time a student proposes a topic for research it is a book-length theme, not an article.  The difficulty is to encourage a small, specific, do-able project.  He/She will propose “Victorian Portraiture”; I will suggest Lewis Carrolls image of Alice.  He/She will propose “The Photo Secession”; I suggest the members’ use of a glass ball as a motif.  He/She will propose “Latin American Photography”; I will suggest the digital imagery of Pedro Meyer.  …….take on a project which is containable and can be completed in a reasonable period of time.’

It also made me very aware that research is extremely important before even the first image is made to the extent that the photographer becomes something of a mini-expert on the subject.  This way you don’t end up with just superficial images, but potentially more ‘aware’ and understanding images.

For example, you are not contributing anything to the issue of urban poverty by wandering back streets and snatching pictures of derelicts in doorways.  That’s exploitation, not exploration.’  

It would be much better to research how, why and how many and understand the dynamics with an agency involved and meet the victims before beginning the project.

Don’t push for a unique style, that will come as more and more images are made,

‘Personal vision only comes from not aiming at it.  Over a long period of time and many, many images, the self re-emerges with even greater strength than if it were the end-product.  Ironically, by starting with self, it is missed; ignore it and it becomes self-evident.’

Because we now operate in a digital age it’s too easy to part edit in-camera and accept the first image that ‘looks right‘, keep on shooting until the scenario you’ve picked out completely finishes, and then don’t edit until a decent size picture can be seen.  That way a seemingly innocuous change in an image that eventually makes it THE one to keep is not lost and can be shown in context with the historical record of that shoot, the good, the bad and the ugly.

There’s much, much more there which I can relate to and learn from.  It deserves a good read, perhaps more than once, to milk everything from it, and my dipping in and out with quotations doesn’t do the work justice.  I highly recommend this work for those with an open mind.

10 Responses to On Being A Photographer – Bill Jay and David Hurn

  1. bmhana says:

    I agree completely here. I read this last week, and I think it was the most interesting, useful book I’ve read since starting with OCA.
    Like you, I highlighted text, and used it in my write up. It really made me think about my method and what I was doing, basically.
    As Catherine pointed to out to me, the conversational tone makes it really easy to follow!

  2. vickiloader says:

    Putting down my critical theory and Althusser, and reading this one today!

  3. Catherine says:

    i’ve got the e-book but keep wondering whether I should have the paper version as it is such a ‘personal’ book with its conversational tone. Love the remark on critical theory and language – so apt especially in view of the recent discussion on the OCA student forum re IAE. There’s such wise advice there as well regarding topics for research but it’s so hard to follow!

  4. Eddy Lerp says:

    I was thinking of the book that (used to?) comes with TAoP by Clarke, total incomprehensible B******s. If you read Hurn you’ll see he says that students shouldn’t be taught critical analysis before they’ve grasped making images properly and that most well known photographic artists wouldn’t know what you’re talking about if you brought up the subject with them. I think it’s high time the Campaign for Clear English got involved….. come the revolution brothers and sisters….. I as king will ban it all.

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