It was not too long ago that photographic expertise revolved around such things as metering, exposure, focus, and image development; a sharp well-exposed 4x6 print, for many, was the pinnacle of photographic achievement. Those who ventured beyond the recording of personal memories and into the realms of expressive imagery, let alone art, were few, and their work required extensive technical knowledge and years of practice to hone.
In contrast, capable camera systems, photo-editing software, and photographic desktop printers are within easy reach for many today. A rudimentary understanding of histograms can substitute for the complexity of metering and the Zone System; smart automatic focus now can out-pace most manual users in most situations; and many software packages reduce complex image processing to a few clicks of a mouse. Certainly, those who wish for greater control may still achieve it, but, for the most part, making sharp well-exposed images, and even high quality prints, is easier and faster today than ever before.
Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said that “photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects”. In the same sentence, he claimed also that such technical aspects were not important to him. Indeed, many of us working today are in a position to appreciate the poignancy of his observation, having witnessed the advent of digital photography: perhaps the most profound technological advancement since the invention of the medium. It is easy to argue that photographic tools have come a long way since the time of Cartier-Bresson, and most serious photographers will be quick to repeat the mantra that gear is not important. The inevitable question, then, is what is important?
It helps to think about the photograph not as a product of a sophisticated machine, but as a means for creating an experience. Viewers react to an image, and the nature of their reaction determines its importance. Within this framework, it is easy to see the truth in Cartier-Bresson’s statement. While part of the experience may be derived from quantifiable qualities such as size, color saturation, and subject matter, these alone still do not make a great image. Taken a step further, some may suggest that the success of the image manifests in light, composition, resolution, or any number of other equally technical aspects. Even so, it does not take much to demonstrate that a well composed and technically perfect image still can be devoid of interest. In the words of Ansel Adams: “there is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”.
What makes a meaningful image, then? The question betrays the answer; it is not the image, it is the meaning. Meaning does not come from light or composition or sharp focus. Meaning comes from the person who creates the image. Where, in the past, the mere technical exercise of making an image was enough to impress, this is the case no longer. Similarly, images of scenic locations that were once difficult to reach, no longer carry the day. The only way to make a meaningful image, today as in the day of Cartier-Bresson, is originality. While the priorities of our process may have changed, the ultimate priority for our work has not. Create an experience that nobody else has, or can, and the world will be your oyster.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 20 of Landscape Photography Magazine.