This is widely regarded as a seminal text for photographers, and garners high praise in both critic and reader reviews. Unfortunately I must be in the minority as I failed to see what the fuss was about!
Part of the problem for me is in the writing style. It’s mostly based on transcribed conversations between the two authors, which strikes me as an incredibly lazy way to write a ‘book’. I put ‘book’ in inverted commas as it reads more like a long magazine interview, albeit one between two close friends who are so unchallenging with one another that it comes across like eavesdropping on two old mates having a chat. Some may like this (literally) conversational style but I found it quite maddening, and wished one of them (or an editor) had insisted on structuring the whole thing a little more like a traditional book.
Getting beyond style and into content: unlike most readers I found little in these pages that was new or inspiring. Maybe I’ve already read too many books on photography and a form of diminishing returns kicks in. Much of the book is, if not wholly instructional, at least advisory on some of the how-to aspects of photography, admittedly covering areas that other books neglect – e.g. generating ideas for, planning and executing photo projects. But even these sections, as enlightening as they were, left me frustrated as they are written (spoken!) as though they describe The Only Way – and in my view there are a number of ways of ‘being a photographer’.
For example, for a photo essay Hurn suggests a highly structured approach where you write down keyword headings of the ideas you’d like to get across and then proceed to take photos until you’ve ticked off everything on the list. Now, for OCA assignments I actually do work in a similar way to this, as I find the structure helps up to a point – but for personal projects I find such an approach severely limiting. To suggest that this checklist approach is the only, or even the best, way to work is to disregard the magnificent works of the likes of an Elliott Erwitt or a Garry Winogrand, who famously shot whatever they saw that was interesting and only later curated their archives into coherent collections.
What I’ve learned
Although I may have had a bit of a downer on the book, it’s not entirely without merit. Some nuggets did stand out and get the highlighter treatment. There’s one particular idea that really resonated with me:
“… one of their characteristics [bad photographers] is that they look at their contacts in order to discover which is the best picture, whereas a good photographer examines each frame on a contact sheet and asks: why is this one not a good picture?“
This triggered something of a change in my mindset. It’s been a gradual process that started when I was studying Art of Photography and my tutor at the time suggested getting a copy of Magnum Contacts, as I wasn’t shooting enough variants per image and was assuming that I could get it right in the camera more often than not; the tutor’s advice and the book itself opened my eyes enormously to the truth that even great photographers generate multiple ‘outtakes’ for every successful photo. The insight above takes my thinking on contact sheets one stage further: I need to start using them as a self-analysis / self-education tool. It’s important, I realise, to understand why the near misses, the not-quites and the outright rejects happened, and to learn from what I discover.
So – not a total waste of time! (but I’m glad it was only a few quid on Kindle…)
Maybe I’ll re-read it at some point and I may be more kindly disposed towards it…
- Hurn, D; Jay, B. (1996) On being a photographer. USA: Lenswork
- Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson