Where I learned the most about photographing

I recently realized that if I carefully look at my career as a photographer, I can pinpoint where I learned the most about the act of photographing.  It was not in high school, where I learned the craft of photography.  Nor was it in college, where my study of the history of photography taught me about the art of photography.  It was in a different place, one that I fear is fast disappearing from the photographic landscape.

In high school I was very fortunate to encounter Mike Coppenger, a studio photographer turned photography teacher.  Mike taught me everything he could about the craft of photography, such as how to use lenses, how to control light, what I needed to know about various camera formats and especially the craft of the darkroom. Once I had taken all his regular classes, he turned me loose to explore the more advanced aspects of the media on my own, with independent studies.  While my skills in the wet darkroom are less relevant today, everything else I learned then still applies.

In college, I was fortunate to encounter Leland Rice, a fine-art photographer and photo historian. (See a pattern developing here?) Lee taught me everything he could about the history of photography, particularly the historical trends, the leading figures and the medium’s complex relationship to the other arts. Once I had taken all his regular classes, he turned me loose to explore the history of the medium on my own, again with independent studies. What I learned then about the art of photography still informs my work today as a photographer and a teacher.

But the place where I really learned to be a photographer was somewhere else. I actually learned the skill of using the camera to capture what was in front of me in the hall just outside the darkroom of the Los Angeles Times. Before (and after) I worked for the Times (first as an intern then as a long term contractor) I worked at other newspapers, with some great photographers.  The folks at those other papers would certainly look at my work and give me feedback, valuable input on how to improve my photographs.

But it was the “old guys” (and then they were all guys) hanging around outside the darkroom, who really made me into a photographer.  They spent most of their time grousing about how we, the next generation of photographers, were ruining the business. I would bring my prints (black and white prints sometimes still wet) to them for their review.  Their blunt critiques cut to the bone.  They told me, in no uncertain terms, what was wrong, and how to make it right. Precisely, exactly and with no sugar coating.  The decades of photography experience they had under their (ever expanding) belts made them very good critics whose suggestions really sunk in.

Days after I was “roasted” by guys like Larry Davis, I could still hear his feedback as I was out on another assignment. I respected and admired the “old guys” so I did what they said. I have to say, they are the ones who really taught me the process of actually getting into a photograph that was in front of me.

Today’s newspapers largely have lost that kind of critiquing community in the process of closing their darkrooms. (Many schools, in the process of closing their wet darkrooms are similarly losing a valuable teaching resource.) Most photojournalists get their assignments via e-mail or on line, take the pictures and then transmit/upload the final images. Many can go days without ever going into the photography department where they might once have received that all-important critical feedback. Unfortunately, newspapers are in such economic difficulty now that this loss is minor compared to the other challenges they face.

My new found appreciation for the value of the feedback from the “old guys” got me thinking about how today’s photographers can best improve their skills.  I always tell my students that looking at other people’s imagery is a very important tool, second only to actually making new images. Sharing images with peers, on sites like flikr and facebook is fun, it does not comprise crucial advice. Nothing beats an outside, uninterested critic’s review of some photographs. So where do you get useful input on how to improve as a photographer?

In my experience, serious feedback must be “hierarchical,” which simply means the person critiquing knows more about photography than the person being critiqued.  Workshops are one common option.  Some people work with master photographers formally, or informally.  Schools can offer this, but not all do.

There is no one way to do this, but now that I better understand how I learned to actually make photographs, I wanted to share the insight so others will carefully consider the same question in their quest to grow and improve as photographers.

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