Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Addiction

PIX, 2010

A lot of people have addictions. Mine’s looking at pictures. Like a lot of Flickr friends, I check in several times a day to see what my friends are posting. Their images are a mixture of straight reportage from around the world, great travel photography and thought provoking street and fine art photography. I’ve learned a lot about the world around me—e.g. more about everyday life in modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan that you’d ever learn from the news—from Flickr contributors. I’ve learned a lot about color and composition. And I’ve learned a lot about how to evoke moods in photography. (I’ve also learned that a little HDR goes a long way and that too much HDR is, well, too much.)

It’s safe to say that I’ve learned more about photography from looking at other people’s pictures than from just about anything else. (In all honesty, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy since the only formal photography class I ever attended was a two-day “Nikon School” in a hotel in Richmond in 1973.)

There’s a long tradition of learning from looking. You do it in every art class and, I suspect, most photography classes. It’s just that I missed out on the parts between the art slides where there was actual instruction.

About six years ago I had the opportunity to show a portfolio of my pictures to a well-known museum photography curator. He was polite, guardedly critical and mildly instructive, the latter of which were what I was looking for.

On the way out the door, he recommended that I take a course in the history of photography. A course in the history of photography! Did he know how many books about the history of photography I had read through the years? How many hours I spent in libraries poring over books of photographs and art? How many books about photographers I’d read?

But he was right. There’s a difference between looking at pictures and looking at pictures with a knowledgeable person.

I haven’t gotten around to taking that class. But there are a couple of resources I heartily recommend to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of the evolution of photography as an art form.

The first is John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs. If you’re going to have just one book about photography, this could be it. You’ll get good guidance on how to look at a picture, which for us neophytes means learning what to look for in a photograph.

For more about the history of photography, I’m high on Jeff Curto, whose course at The College of DuPage can be observed for free by spending some time at his web site.


  1. Thanks for the recommended reading--I'll have to look for that book! Sounds like a great book. It's really true--I could watch people create all day--you learn a lot by just seeing what someone else does and how they do it.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations, Chris! I have another Szarkowski book - The Photographer's Eye - and wondered whether there was anything to be gained by looking at Looking at Photographs (no pun intended, for the first time in my life). And you're right about learning by looking (and by doing), and by talking to (or listening to) knowledgeable people. Although I've heard that the Nikon School crash course is useful too.