Beyond Photography: Claude Monet, Meet Walker Evans

Claude Monet: Rouen Cathedral, Full Sunlight (1894; public domain)

I remember sitting through a recital and lecture once by pianist Balint Vazsonyi.  The pianist’s commentary on the pieces, and on music in general, was a lively counterpoint to the music he played. I couldn’t tell you a single tune he played that night, but one thing that he said has always stuck with me. Musicians and others, he remarked, use their art as a means to solve problems, their works being scratch-pads of sorts on which dilemmas both artistic and personal are ironed out.

One thing that’s helpful about working in series (among many others) is that it’s a good way of ironing out problems. Something that only affords you one chance at getting the shot can be rewarding if you get it, but frustrating if you don’t, since it can be a long time before a similar opportunity presents itself. When you have the chance to revisit something, however, you have the chance to portray it from different angles, and to literally see it in a different light. Many artists have done some of their best work in serial form, and two of the best exemplars I can think of are impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) and photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975).

Monet didn’t quite invent Impressionism, but his 1872 painting Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise) was its namesake, and he was one of its most visible practitioners. Many of his best-known works – the Water Lilies, the Rouen Cathedral, Poplars, and Weeping Willows – come from works that were painted in series. The Rouen Cathedral series set out to address how light impacted color and perception. It was also a change in that it was a departure from the landscape painting that had characterized his work up to that point, though it wasn’t as much of a departure as it might at first seem; the seasonal changes of a landscape, he would come to learn, could be reflected in something as seemingly immutable as a stone building.

Working with a single subject over a period of time can be a challenge for even the best painter. Monet despaired that he’d ever get the cathedral’s ever-changing shadows and light quite right, writing at one point, ‘Things don’t advance very steadily, primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before… In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.’ The painter’s singular disadvantage is that the light on the subject can sometimes change during a single sitting at a rate, and in ways, the brush can’t quite keep pace with. When your medium works in fractions of a second, however, you’re at a distinct advantage. You can wait for that perfect moment when light, color, shadow and geometry all perfectly intersect, and capture it before it vanishes.

Political Poster (Walker Evans/FSA; public domain)

With that said, working in series doesn’t necessarily mean having to revisit the same place or object repeatedly. It can be as simple as finding a theme, and using that theme or type of image as a unifying thread for a series of works. While he wasn’t known for anything related to flowers or cathedrals, Walker Evans shared a similar serialist spirit with Monet. As was the case with the painter, many of the photographer’s most loved shots came from series of photos, some shot on the New York subway, others taken of signs all over the United States. The subway shots mostly had the same backdrop (subway cars) and lighting (you don’t get much variety in that respect), but the subjects on even a short ride were always changing, providing continuous opportunities for new visuals. The sign photos, meantime, ranged from the relatively durable (neon signs, or signs painted on buildings) to the ephemeral, like the already-tattered campaign poster pictured here. The works, many done for the FSA in the mid- to late-1930’s, are the perfect complement to Evans’ depictions of the rural families hardest hit by the Great Depression; whether taken individually or as a series, they’re uniquely evocative of their time and place.

If we examine even a few of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings, or Evans’ sign photographs, the advantages of working in sequence become clear; it’s above all things an opportunity to see the changes wrought in a subject by time and the seasons, or a chance to tell a story even with the most mundane places and objects. If you’re starting out, assigning yourself a series to work on can also be a way to hone your skills while simultaneously finding your voice.

Links and Resources:
A short piece on Evans’ Subway photos
A page on the Library of Congress website on Evans’ FSA work, highlighting a series shot in New York
A comprehensive site on Claude Monet’s life and work

Charity Profile: Operation: Love ReUnited

Click to find out more about Operation: Love ReUnited

Deployments are too hard on families, and homecomings too joyous, to give much thought to documenting the occasion. Your loved ones are the first thing on your mind, and a camera… well, it’s much further down the list, if it even occurs to you at all. Tonee Lawrence found this out the hard way. Her husband deployed to the Middle East in January 2005, and when he returned some months later, she had little to show for it photographically.

Operation: Love ReUnited was started a short time later, in September, 2006, so that other service members and their families would have a means of documenting these occasions. The first shoot was by Lawrence herself, for a friend whose husband was being deployed. In the five years since, hundreds of photographers – some, like Lawrence, military spouses, others just volunteers with a passion – have captured literally thousands of images of service members and their families, both as they depart for overseas operations, and during their return home.

Participating photographers waive their fees, and agree to send a 4×6 printed album of the images to the deployed soldier, at no cost to the family. When homecomings are photographed, the photographer gives an album or a cd of the images to the returning military member, all with no financial obligation by the service member or their family.

The organization has gotten attention from military spouses (hardly surprising), but is also the only organization whose policies and guidelines have been fully reviewed and approved by the Department of Defense  (you can read the DoD’s feature on the organization here

The organization is still looking for photographers, especially to be able to mobilize large numbers on short notice when troops are deployed. Monetary donations are also sought in order to defray the organization’s members’ travel expenses, which can be considerable. You can find out more about Operation: Love ReUnited’s services, volunteer guidelines, and network of volunteer photographers by visiting their website, You may also find them on Facebook at .

Beyond Photography: Andy Warhol, Meet Edward Weston

Can you see beauty in ugliness
Or is it playing in the dirt?
— Lou Reed, “Starlight”

Andy Warhol, "Campbell's Soup Cans," courtesy

Campbell’s Soup cans, Brillo boxes, luridly colored silk screens of Marylin Monroe… while Andy Warhol was a provocateur and self-promoter beyond comparison, it’s hard on one hand to argue that his best-known pieces broke any new ground. There was a clear debt, both conceptually and stylistically, to Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” like the infamous “Fountain,” and even to Schwitters’ use of ticket stubs and adverts in his Merz pieces.

On the other hand, Warhol’s gift (along with such other like-minded souls as Claes Oldenburg and Duane Hanson) was to take Duchamp’s readymades and put them on steriods. It was no longer just a matter of being bombarded by these images in magazines, television ads and supermarkets; now someone was putting them on canvas, forcing you not just to look, but to really see them, and to consider them as art to boot. This was realism taken to a nearly perverse extreme, but it was also a means of questioning and pushing the boundaries of what art was, or could be, in a far more accessible way than Jackson Pollack or Arshile Gorky.

Edward Weston, "Pepper No. 30," courtesy of WikiMedia

Edward Weston probably isn’t someone you’d habitually lump in with Andy Warhol, but let’s give it a try, shall we? Some of his best known work is of common green peppers. In black and white. Lovingly composed and lit in a way that’d make your average Rembrandt seem shabby by comparison. Like Warhol, he wasn’t necessarily treading new ground; others had captured similarly common stuff, as if in amber, but what Weston did with those peppers* could probably have cemented his place in the photographic pantheon even if he hadn’t done all those landscapes, or the portraits of his wife and muse, Charis Wilson.

Are peppers common? Have you been to a grocery store any time recently? But Weston’s peppers also have a certain force and beauty that you don’t generally expect from vegetables. While Warhol made the ordinary and banal a stock in trade, in Weston’s case, the nudes and peppers are two sides of the same coin, with each informing the other. Put differently, those shots of Charis Wilson look the way they do because the peppers look like they do, and vice versa.

Some kinds of photography — sunsets, dogs, kids — are standbys because they’re like shooting fish in a barrel.** They’re reliable shots. Really, when’s the last time you saw an ugly sunset? I think the challenge inherent in Warhol, and in some of the best of Weston’s work, is that they take what’s so common that it might as well be invisible, and pretty much force us to see it. To my mind, that’s great practice; after all, if you can find beauty in the commonplace, or even in the downright ugly, you just might be able to see the more obviously beautiful in ways that aren’t so obvious.

A couple of weeks back, I suggested that from time to time we look beyond photography for inspiration. This is the first in an intermittent series of considerations of artists, and what I’ve learned from them as a photographer. You may draw the same lessons from different artists, or look at the same artist and draw a different lesson altogether. What’s important is that we keep looking, learning, and finding that inspiration. Each time, it’s a great way to recharge the batteries; it’s also a great reminder that no matter where you are in your art and/or craft, someone’s been there before you, and their work can light our path, even when we’re ready to blaze a trail of our own.

*By the way, the best known of Weston’s pepper photos is number 30. He shot 29 other peppers before settling on one that he liked. Think about that next time you’re frustrated ’cause you’re shooting the same subject again, trying for just the right angle and lighting.

**Incidentally, I’ve never actually tried shooting fish in a barrel… I’ll let you supply your own lens joke here.

Giving Back in the Wake of Irene

Rutherford, NJ, near the Passaic River, 8/30/11

After several days spent preparing for a hurricane by stocking up on enough canned goods to feed the 101st Airborne for a week and tracking the storm’s every wobble on television, we found ourselves lucky. Aside from a loss of internet access for a bit, we got off easy. A glance back at the television, and then a few days spent outside with my gear, reminded me that while this may have been a “minor” storm, there’re quite a few people — many within a short walk of home, some farther afield — who didn’t get off nearly as easily.

I’ve profiled nonprofits in this space before, and will continue to do so. For right now, however, I’d like to encourage you to help your neighbors — whether they’re down the street, or a thousand miles away — in whatever way you can. I’ve compiled a few tips to hopefully make the process a bit easier.

Wallington, NJ, 8/30/11

Things you can do:

    • Donate. Whether it’s your time or your money, it will be put to good use.
    • Designate where you want the funds to go. The American Red Cross got a bit of a bad rap in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 after a controversy over money not going where the donors intended. The Red Cross learned from the experience, however, and has procedures in place so that if you specify that you’d like your donation to go to hurricane relief, that’s how it will be used; likewise, if you’d like your money to go to the organization’s general fund, you can donate with no strings attached. Other organizations have similar safeguards in place. If you’re not sure, ask, and don’t be shy about making your wishes clear.
    • If you want to donate goods — food, clothing, and the like — call in advance to find out what’s needed. This can vary widely based not only on geography, but also on what the organizations on the ground already have stockpiled, or have already received. They may well be up to their ears in canned goods but short on toiletries, for instance; a tube of Colgate may go much farther than a can of soup.
    • Unfortunately, some people with no scruples will see this as an opportunity to profit off of someone else’s misfortune. Be especially wary of giving your financial information (credit card numbers and the like) to someone on the basis of an email or telemarketing call. If something feels “off,” it probably is. If you’re not sure about an organization that’s soliciting your time or money, go to, which can help you to find out if an organization’s on the up and up, as well as what percentage of your donation will be used for aid versus administrative expenses.
    • Find out if your employer will match your donations, either by percentage or in full. If they do, what you give will be multiplied that much more.
    • Donate online or by text message. The funds will often be available much faster to organizations much faster than they would’ve been if you’d sent a check.
    • Finally, don’t forget smaller, often local organizations. Some of these, naturally, will be providing disaster assistance. Others may have missions not related to Irene at all, but they’ll still need your help. People are unfailingly generous when disaster strikes, but often the donations flow to larger, better-known organizations at the expense of smaller ones.
Spring Lake Boardwalk, 8/29/11
    Curious what you can do as a photographer? If you live in or near an area that’s been effected, use your talents to get the word out, along with visuals. If it’s an area that’s been neglected by the media, so much the better. And of course, the usual rules of tact, ethics, and common sense apply: stay safe, be transparent about what you’re doing and why, and if someone would rather you didn’t photograph them (or their property), honor their wishes.  Think about it: this is a stressful enough time for many people, and the last thing you want to do is add to that stress.

To donate or get help, find your local Red Cross chapter here.

Visit Charity Navigator for information before you donate.

Full disclosure: the link for donations that appears below this post is for this blog, NOT for the American Red Cross or any other nonprofit. If you want to donate, please do it via the Red Cross link above, or via your local chapter.

Camera As Begging Bowl

Be willing to be surprised.

There’s a practice in several religions, but closely associated with Buddhism, of monks who’ve taken a vow of poverty hitting the road with little more than the clothes on their backs, begging bowls in hand. Those who give to the monks earn the karmic merits of their kind deeds. The monk or mendicant relies on the kindness and benevolence of those they meet for their sustenance. I’d imagine they also learn pretty quickly to be grateful for whatever ends up in the bowl, since you never quite know where or when you might come by the next morsel, and you’re mindful that no matter how little you may have gotten, someone somewhere had less still.

All of this might seem a bit removed from the day-to-day concerns of a photographer. When you stop to think about it, though, we’re not that far from those monks. Our cameras don’t function on their own; they rely on our imagination and vision to bring them to life. That combination, of eye, mind, and camera, is in a very real sense our begging bowl; it’s empty, devoid of image, if you will, and we set out to see what the world will put in our bowl, hopefully taking only what we need, and being grateful for what the day brings.

It’s not always easy to approach photography like this. It’s one thing to pick up the camera with a sense of anticipation, maybe even excitement. It’s something else again when that anticipation turns to the expectation of a certain nebulous percentage of keepers, if not amazing shots. The problem with expectations is that at some point, usually sooner rather than later, they come face-to-face with reality. We hit creative blocks, we lose some of the inspiration that we’ve come to take for granted, or we run into external factors we can’t control, like bad weather, uncooperative lighting, or misbehaving equipment. Experience, which you’d think would help, sometimes only adds more hindrances. With time, we come to know what we envision, exactly how we want it to look, and exactly when we want it (now, though yesterday would be preferable).

Disappointment comes when we get attached to those expectations, and think that somehow the world will play along, forgetting that the world has bigger fish to fry. If the sun ducks behind a cloud and ruins the perfect, rich sidelighting you had, it’s not because the universe is conspiring against you. Letting go of those expectations leaves less of a chance that we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

I understand if you’re working on assignment, you generally have a specific timeframe in which to deliver some very specific images. If or when you’re just shooting for yourself, though, try something: pick up your camera with nothing in mind other than making photos. Nothing more specific than that. No cheating, either… “well, I’ll get one or two nice sunset shots, then see what else I get.” For once, let your mind be as empty of expectations as your memory card, and just see. Let your eyes, and life itself, guide you from one image to the next.

I remember seeing a billboard once that read, “No matter what you’re looking for, the real joy is finding something else.” It was probably for some mall or other, but as billboard philosophy goes, I thought it was pretty useful. Over the years, I’ve tried to apply it both to my writing, and to my photography. The result, I hope, has been a willingness to always go into a project with my eyes open, willing – even eager – to be surprised by what I find (or what finds me), even if that something wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Always have your beggar’s bowl of curiosity with you, ready to accept those daily surprises, those calls to mindfulness, with a glad heart and open hands.

Charity Profile: Shutter Mission

Some months back, when The First 10,000 was still in the planning stages, I thought to myself that it might be a good idea to see what  photo-related charities and nonprofits might be out there. I’d do the occasional article, and at some point devote a page to what I’d found. Then I found that someone had beaten me to it, and in fact devoted an entire website and organization to doing just that.

That someone is Amanda Shoemaker, who started Shutter Mission when she began to realize how many people could benefit from the services offered by portrait charities, but might not be aware of their existence. Feeling that a mere directory would be “boring,” she decided to showcase the charities alongside the work of the photographers who volunteered with them, partly in the hope that other photographers might also be inspired to give back.

Gradually, Shutter Mission took shape. Over time, it’s grown into its mission, “[t]o highlight portrait charities and support photographers who give their time, talent, and heart.” It has likewise evolved according to a plan laid out before the charity even launched; Shoemaker envisioned, and grew, a central hub for photographers to learn about different options in photography charities, a directory of those charities for the benefit of interested photographers and individuals who could benefit from them, and a photo blog that has showcased organizations and photographers alike. She was kind enough to sit down recently and answer a few questions.

Chicken-and-egg question: I see that you and your husband work in the interactive industry. Since both of you spend so much time around graphics, was photography a natural outgrowth of that, or was it the other way around?

My husband, Eric Shoemaker, is an art director here in San Francisco. I’m a contract web developer and work from our home office in Alameda. We’ve both been into photography for years. I fell in love with it in my youth… my dad was a science teacher at my high school, and the photography club director. He was the one who taught me all the ins and outs of the darkroom. Ever since, I have always been involved in photography… with local clubs, starting a portrait business in Atlanta, and volunteering. As for my husband, I gave Eric his first SLR for his birthday back in 2005, and he hasn’t put it down since. Eric’s favorite subject is his ’67 Beetle, and he has an amazing knack for capturing textures and urban scenes. Often on weekends, we go on “photo strolls” together, around Alameda or in the City. Since we are fairly new to the Bay area (we moved here in 2009), capturing our new town is one of our very favorite things to do.

Of all the things you could have done with your photography, you chose to start ShutterMission. What was the spark for that?

Out of all the portrait sessions I had back when I had my business in Atlanta, my very favorites were the Operation: Love ReUnited sessions. I loved that I could really and truly help someone with my art. It was so touching to witness a military homecoming at the airport, to see a child hug her father who had been gone for so many long months, to see a couple kiss for the first time in too long. And to be able to be there to capture that was the best feeling ever. I fell in love with the idea of portrait charities, and the idea with Shutter Mission was to simply get the word out about all these great organizations. For one, so that families knew they existed and could utilize their services, and two, so that photographers looking to volunteer had a place to find the right organization that fit their skills and interests. I looked around the web, and could not find a site where all of these types of charities were collected, so the idea started with a directory of sorts, and grew from there.

I notice that it was six months between when you initially announced the project on Capturing Light and when it finally went live. Tell me about what was going on behind the scenes during that time.

Well, we had just moved 2,500 away from all our family and friends to a strange new city. You probably don’t want to know what was going on “behind the scenes” here! It was a big adjustment for both of us, and quite honestly, the spare time that I assumed I would have to work on side projects like Shutter Mission wasn’t as abundant as I had hoped. Between work contracts, I squeezed in some time to build it. And because I’m a constant tweaker, it took even longer. But hey, better late than never!

What was the moment when you said, “You know, I’ve really got something here?”

Ha! That hasn’t really happened yet. I’d love to carve out some more time to devote to the blog, and hopefully grow the community. Ideally, I’d like to reach as many photographers as possible, so that the charities can get the max amount of exposure for their causes and be fully “stocked” with available volunteers.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment thus far?

A mention on the Chicago Tribune’s site was pretty nice… and was a great way to spread the word about charity photography.

And what’s the next milestone you hope to reach?

My next goal with Shutter Mission is to partner with a few photography-specific vendors and host some giveaways for photographers. I’d like to do this as a way to show appreciation for the volunteer work that is being done for the charities, but I also want to attract new photographers to the site who may have not heard of portrait charities before. It will be a great way to educate photographers about the different charities out there and encourage them to get involved.

If someone’s thinking of volunteering with a portrait charity, but either isn’t sure of themselves, or of their skill level, what advice would you give them?

Great question! A lot of charities do require that you are indeed a professional in order to join as a volunteer, and the reason for that is that the people who are being helped via these organizations deserve the absolute best image quality they can get. NILMDTS [Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep] comes to mind… with an infant bereavement session, there are no do-overs. You have to get it right, be professional, sensitive and caring. However, there are volunteer opportunities available for photographers at every skill level. For example, Dog Meets World is open to any photographer who wants to “travel, take pictures, and give joy.” And Help-Portrait utilizes not just photographers, but they also need Adobe Lightroom experts, greeters, lighting technicians, print techs, makeup artists, and more. My advice is, if you want to use your talent to help someone… regardless of skill level… go for it! There is likely a charity that needs you!

Anything you’d like to add that we haven’t already covered?

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” — Winston Churchill

Paul here again: If there’s a lesson to be drawn, it’s this: no matter what your niche or level of skill, there’s likely an organization that fits your interests and passions, and they could probably use your help. If you’re looking for a good overview of your options, or just want to learn more, is a great starting point.

As befits someone with over ten years’ experience building websites, Amanda’s all over the web. Of course, there’s You can also find her on Twitter (@shuttermission), view her portfolio on the  Lane | Russell website, and visit her blog at

Finding Your Vision

Prayer Flag
There’s a wonderful story about Kurt Schwitters.* One day, the artist was on the train, carrying with him the roots of a tree. When someone asked him what the roots were,

[H]e replied that they constituted a cathedral. “But that is no cathedral, that is only wood!” the stranger exclaimed. “But don’t you know that cathedrals are made out of wood?” Schwitters replied.

On the face of it, the artist probably seemed a little crazy to the man on the train. But to Schwitters, it was no more unusual to look at those roots and see the cathedral inside than it would’ve been for Rodin to recognize the lovers waiting to be liberated from the stone. His fertile imagination gave the world inventive poetry, whimsical bits of collage he dubbed “Merz” and Gaudi-esque architectural fantasias that came to be known as “Merzbau.” A more sensible man might’ve conceded that it was a bit of a stretch to see cathedrals in stumps; thankfully, Schwitters stuck to his gentle madness.

At some point, you’ll want to cultivate your own style and vision. After all, when just about everyone’s got a camera, what’s a guy or girl got to do to stand out? So we look for that individual style, the one that will at least make us stand out, if not make us rich and/or famous.


Mind you, I’m not saying “take the same photos everyone’s taken of the same things since the dawn of photography.” What I’m saying, more accurately, is quit worrying about making yourself unique. You might as well fret over your fingerprints. Each of us sees the world differently, just because. There are ways that we can see more of it, either by getting to places we’ve never been, or finding a new light (sometimes literally) in which to view that which we pass every day. Worrying about authenticity isn’t what makes you authentic. It’s a simple matter of seeing what you see, as no one else does or can, framing that in the viewfinder, and then being faithful to that vision.

There’s everything you need to find your style in a nutshell. Simple, isn’t it? Well, not really. It takes work. It’s easy to take those same shots everybody’s taken (Hey, look! I’m squishing the Eiffel Tower between my fingertips! I’ve got the Guggenheim in a waffle cone!). It’s also tempting to settle for the easy shot for lack of time, or because the more conventional shot might get more plaudits (or sales). It’s quite something else to pass those shots up for another spot altogether, or to do the even harder work of finding new angles on the same old subject that nobody’s thought of before. They may not be what’s in every vacation snapshot or postcard, but they’re something else: they’re truly, irrevocably, yours. If you can nail that, and stay true to it, you will have done something you can be proud to put your name on.

Ansel Adams said once that the most important part of the camera was the twelve inches behind it. Not the Canon, Kodak, or Nikon, nor the tripod it’s on, nor the lens that’s attached to it. You. Nobody else sees the world quite the way you do. You have a responsibility to yourself to honor the vision that only you can see, and only you can communicate.

*Related in Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets, p. xxvii.

What Kind of Photographer Are You?

What kinda photographer shoots stuff like this, anyway?

At some point, you’ll find it useful to decide just what kind of photographer you are. Are you serious or casual? Plan on going professional, or content to remain an amateur? You’ve got money to burn, or you want/need to keep it on the cheap? Just as importantly, what do you want to shoot? Kids? Animals? Sports? Cars? Landscapes? Or do you have not even the remotest idea what kind of photographer you are?

These aren’t just rhetorical questions (far be it from me, the one-time English major…). They’re actually important for a number of reasons.

Not least of these is equipment. The requirements, usually in lenses, but sometimes also in bodies and accessories, will be much different for someone in the habit of shooting architecture than they’d be for someone who treks to the track every weekend for shots of the ponies or the stock cars.

But of course, gear only gets you so far. You’ll also need to do a fair amount of study and training. If you plan on being self-taught, your answers to these questions might guide you to one book or website over another; if you’re planning on learning from a human being, those same answers will guide you to taking certain types of classes, or in finding a photographer to shadow or take on as a mentor.

And even once you’ve got your gear and a fair amount of training/experience under your belt, you’re not done yet. There’s still the matter of developing your style. We’ll be taking up some tips on doing just that in the days ahead, but bear in mind that part of how we arrive at our own style, often as not, is by observing others who do what we’d like to be doing, and learning from them. So if you fancy yourself a fashion photographer, you might start with Herb Ritts; a street photographer, Gary Winograd; a photojournalist, Sebastiao Salgado. Others’ work can be an inspiration, a point of departure, or a series of object lessons in what we do or don’t want out of our photography.

Incidentally, if you’re not sure what kind of photographer you are or would like to be, or if you feel like assigning yourself a “category” is somehow pigeonholing yourself, know that that’s okay too. Just be aware that even being a Jack or Jill of all trades carries with it its own set of requirements, and sometimes even bigger challenges; you probably won’t be able to get away with having only one lens in your kit, for instance, and you may find it a bit more of a challenge figuring out from whom to learn. On the other hand, your options are limitless, since you’re free to just wander from day to day, pointing your camera wherever your eye leads you.

Regardless of where you fall on any of these criteria – and really, it’s got to be a plural, since all the different things we “are” as photographers end up looking like a really complicated Venn diagram with many, many points of intersection – don’t feel as though you need to explain, much less justify, it to anyone. This is for you, and you alone. Think of it as something that’s just one more thing in your mental toolkit. Your choices don’t make you a better photographer than the next person, but neither do they diminish you.

For a humorous take on this, check out Gordon Lewis’ What Type of Photographer Are You? on Shutterfinger (and check out the rest of his blog while you’re there… you’ll thank me later).

And by way of a postscript, what kind of photographer are you?

Photographic Objectivity: Fact, or Fiction?

Robert Capa: Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death (1936)

It was Robert Capa’s best-known photograph, but also easily his most controversial. 75 years later, the debate continues: was this picture of a Spanish Republican soldier’s last moments the ultimate lucky shot, or was it staged? By 1936, photography had long since left its infancy and entered an exciting maturity, gaining respect both as an artistic and journalistic medium. To what standards would the photographer, as photojournalist, artist, or documentarian be held?

It’s often said the camera never lies. I’ll grant you that the camera, by itself, is the perfect neutral party with no ulterior motives. The issue is that it doesn’t make its own photos; that’s guided by a human being, and all the preferences, knowledge, interests and agendas which that human being brings to bear on his or her photomaking process. So it’s worth asking how realistic it is for photographers to be objective.

Nick Ut / The Associated Press (1972)

It’s worth asking, also, whether true objectivity – a kind of knighted neutrality or impartiality – is even desirable. Some of the best-known “news” images of the twentieth century (Capa’s militiaman, Joe Rosenthal’s depiction of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the photography of Leni Riefenstahl) were posed or staged to make political or propaganda points, so their objectivity was immediately called into question. Other photos, however, were the result of the simple fact that someone cared enough to be there, to compose the shot, set their camera, and decide that this image was important enough that somebody, or several somebodies, needed to see it. Nick Ut’s legendary, harrowing photo depicting the aftermath of the bombing of a Vietnamese village would be one good example, and in more recent times, Thomas E. Franklin’s photo of firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero would be another. You could argue that these images were, in some ways, about more than just the events they captured; countless thousands of images were created over the course of both of those events, but these in particular have lasted precisely because they drew a certain resonance from a photographer’s gut reaction to the scene, rather than his* sense of detachment.

After all, your interest in, or passion about, a subject is likely going to inform whether you decide to approach it at all. If it leaves you cold, it’s probably better left to someone else. If you’re going to present that depiction as an opinion or interpretation, then let the chips fall where they may; the rub is if you’re going to present it as truth, in which case you owe it to your subjects, yourself (as well as your reputation), and your viewers to present your subject in a way that’s as factual as possible. It’s not your responsibility to find the best or worst light in which to portray them; done correctly, context will take care of that for you. Photographers like Jacob Riis, and photomonteurs like John Heartfield practiced their art as activism, but it was in a context that let their viewers know the score (Riis generally published in the muckraking papers of the day, and Heartfield published in the Socialist magazine AIZ, so there wasn’t much pretense of objectivity, nor was any needed).

Flag Raising at Ground Zero (Thomas E. Franklin/The Record/Associated Press)

All of this might seem a bit removed from the concerns of the average photographer, especially those of us who don’t do it for a living. But the issue, and the questions that surround it, are worth raising and giving some serious thought. The camera, with its cold gaze, may not have an agenda in mind; however, the photographer, once the image has left the sensor or the film, can impose any conditions he or she sees fit through a multitude of compositional methods and post processing tools. If your photos of something are either the only record, or one of the more visible records, that carries with it a certain responsibility. Time Magazine learned this the hard way after its infamously retouched O.J. Simpson cover.

In summary, I think that whether or not you “need” to be objective depends a lot on the photo and where/how it’s going to be used. The responsibilities of a photojournalist are necessarily different than those of an artist, a street photographer, or portraitist. The expectations for a photographer shooting for National Geographic** versus those for someone shooting for, say, Playboy (you didn’t think the women really looked like that, did you?), are going to be very different things. It’s one thing to airbrush a zit off the groom’s forehead, but it’s something else altogether to airbrush the thugs and corpses out of the photo of a dictator.

Carl Bernstein, who famously broke the Watergate story in collaboration with Bob Woodward, said that objectivity was “getting the best obtainable version of the truth.” Just as no written article can possibly cover every facet of even the simplest story, no photograph, no matter how talented the photographer, could tell the entire story on its own (nor, I would argue, should it attempt to). You do the best you can with what you’ve got, or can get, but you also have a responsibility, no matter what your niche, to do so with integrity.

*Before someone takes me to task over my choice of gender pronoun (after all, some people live for that kind of thing), I’ll remind you that both photographers being referred to are men.

**Speaking of National Geographic, the magazine touched off quite the firestorm when it became known that one of its covers had taken a bit of artistic license, so this isn’t a strictly academic point.

A postscript, and a note: The Nick Ut and Robert Capa photos came from an essay in the UK’s Telegraph, “Ten Photographs that Changed the World.” Those images, and the others used here, are not property of The First 10,000, but are posted under Fair Use.

Featured Nonprofit: HeARTs Speak

Image courtesy of Lisa Prince Fishler/HeARTs Speak

Photographer Lisa Prince Fishler started HeARTs Speak for one simple reason: every day, from one end of the country, countless adoptable animals are needlessly euthanized. More often than not, they haven’t landed in shelters because there’s something wrong with them; changes in their owners’ lives — be it a drop in income, a change in living arrangements, or the arrival of a child — or simple abandonment account for the lion’s share of shelter animals.

Just as simple economics sometimes works against pet owners, it’s not a shelter’s best friend, either. The average shelter runs on a shoestring, and providing funds to a photographer or painter means cutting back somewhere else. Artists, similarly, may find themselves in the unenviable position of wanting to help but being unable if volunteer work means cutting back on paid assignments. HeARTs Speak takes a two-pronged approach to these problems through donations of photographic equipment to shelters that are inaccessible to photographers, and via cash stipends to the photographers themselves.  With simple photographs and paintings, HeARTs Speak and its contributing artists put a face on the problem, raising not only awareness, but also adoption rates in the process.

The good news is that increasing the number of adoptions by a mere three percent means the end of shelter animals being needlessly put to death. HeARTs Speak seeks “[t]o unite the individual efforts of animal artists & animal rescues into collective action for social change.” Their mission is “to provide the framework, tools & resources to support animal artists working to help animals in need; to disseminate messages that inspire a better understanding of the emotions of animals & ultimately an understanding of, and compassion towards them; to connect Rescues/Shelters with artists with the intention of breaking down the myth that animals from Rescues and Shelters are inferior in some way. Professional Photographs greatly improve adoptability and ultimately, will increase the number of animals adopted and reduce the numbers that are euthanized.”

Says Fishler, “I love what happens when people come together.” To that end, her outreach has included not just photographers and painters, but also other organizations. “HeARTs Speak is actually very excited to be joining forces with The Unexpected Pit Bull Calendar. They’ve been around since 2004, and donate 100% of their net proceeds to pit bull dog related advocacy and rescue groups.  We had almost 40 submissions for the calendar, of which we chose 13 to grace its pages.  It’s something new for us, and for TUPB, but what has resulted is pure magic.”

Animal rescue can seem like a daunting task, but Fishler seems to hew to the old adage that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog: “We only need to increase the number of animals adopted each year by 3% in order to reduce the numbers euthanized to zero.  The more people we have working together, the sooner we can make that happen.” If you’d like to join in the effort, whether as a donor or as a photographer (the organization is always looking for artists and photographers, of all skill levels), visit their website,