Learning the language of photography

Besides teaching workshops around the world, I run a few small on-line critique groups. These usually arise out of workshops where the students in the group have bonded and do not want to end the critiquing/dialogue that is at the core of any good workshop. So we meet in a conference call approximately every six weeks, catch-up on photography happenings and review work together on-line. Some interesting dialogues are born in these meetings. One particular thread of discussion from one meeting is well worth sharing.

The groups that I work with usually have four photographers. That seems to be the right number to give every one time to share work (30 minutes per person during a two hour meeting) without going on too long. The members are usually spread across time zones so most meetings happen at night. After a recent meeting, one participant started an interesting discussion when she wrote the group:

That was great – it does give incentive to have these more frequent look-sees. I would be much more prolific but many subjects don’t engage me – intellectually, emotionally, somehow – so I deem them not worthy of even a couple of shots. I’m just not that interested in the solely pretty, be it landscape shots or photos of 3 deep-hued chairs, no matter how attractive the subject might be.

But maybe more to the point – I do understand it is about the practice of seeing, which should heighten my skills when a subject of interest comes around.

Another group member, who is living in Mexico, studying Spanish and working on a grant-funded project concurred:

I agree that the critique schedule does provide some focus and incentive.

I’m feeling a bit uninspired myself. I think I’m worried that the expectations for this Mexican project exceed my skills as a photographer. Maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, so to speak. But, knowing that you all will be looking at my work will get me to get out there to work, work, work.

To both I replied:

To steal a line from Zen, the idea is to make the practice of photography so effortless you do it freely without thought or effort, but with concentration and intensity.

The group member who is living in Mexico replied:

Well, I’ll have to say it is never effortless for me and I usually feel like I’m stumbling around making stupid mistakes, and thinking later about what I should have done. How long will it take?

I replied:

You will be spending how many hours EVERY day studying Spanish?? You should dedicate at least one hour each and every day to studying the other language you love, photography. That may mean doing shoots that are more like exercises than making masterpieces, but you do that kind of rote drill in studying Spanish, so why not do the same with your photography?

She replied:

Thanks for that little piece of advice. I actually found it very inspiring somehow to think of photography as another language. Now that you have said that, of course, that’s what it IS for me – and probably for all of us.

Now I wish I could say I originated the idea of photography as another language but… What I can say is that the best photographers I know are the ones who practice the language they love as often as they can.

Any student learning a second language spends hours in drills, memorization and conversation practice. All of these are aimed at internalizing the language so it becomes intuitive. Why would photography, the language we love, be any different?

One response to “Learning the language of photography”

  1. Language learning requires four basic skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing, so would say a linguist. A skill becomes a skill only when practised adequately. So is with the language of photography.

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