And so did I. Not just one picture, but thousands of pictures. 15535 with that camera alone, to be precise. Whenever I went, I had my camera with me. In New York, I visited Bideawee pet memorial park and got a picture of Checker’s grave. After that I went to Chicago for the American Communist Party National Convention: I didn’t know about how to adjust the camera, so all pictures from inside the building turned out to be useless, but I did get some pictures from the famous picket line outside Congress Hotel.
I went to Fjærland and had my camera with me, I went to Vaison-la-Romaine and documented among other things a game of motoball, I took pictures of basketball players and cemeteries (Cemeteries are fascinating: you can tell about the living by the way they treat their dead), and I experimented with sunsets and shadows:
But first and foremost I took pictures of people. I must have thousands of pictures of my wife from that time. I know I have thousands of pictures of other people: family, friends, random strangers. And of course, our sons.
My first camera got destroyed by approaching concrete in a velocity it wasn’t designed for. My second camera got misplaced somewhere in the Scottish highlands. I am on my third camera now — and it’s surprisingly picky: I can’t get it to function with any other lens than a 85 mm.
Which means, of course, that my already pronounced preference for taking close-ups of people gets even more pronounced. And that might be one reason why I have stopped taking pictures almost completely. But I would like to change that.
That’s why I had lunch with my photographer friend today: to have a photography class. He laughed when he saw my lens. Oh, that might be a challenge, he said, really, only a 85 mm?
I brought my old 50 mm lens as well, but no matter how much we tried, we couldn’t make it work.
Yes, I said stoically, only a 85 mm. My wife calls it the nose-hair lens; she has forbidden me to use it indoors.
He pulled out his professional gear, worth ten times as much as mine. He took a picture of the table. Listen to that shutter sound, he said, dreamingly.
I want to take better pictures, I said. How can I become a proper photographer, just like you? I mean, I am a really really bad photographer, even when I worked with you at Universitas, I had no clue, not the faintest idea, of what constituted a good picture or which photographers were better. Could you help me?
I have asked that question many times about many different areas. How do I become a good swimmer? A good basketball player? A good writer? A good driver? A good cook? The answers have invariably been about two things: One, know what you are dealing with. A driver must know his car, a cook must know his food, a basketball player must know his basketball. And two, just practice. There is no secret ingredient, no magic potion, it’s all about doing something over and over until you get good at it.
This line of reasoning is behind Malmcolm Gladwell’s 10 000-hour claim which has ben shown to at best a partial truth. There has to be something else, it can’t be just practice, not even for a photographer. Right?
Yeah, my friend grudgingly agreed, there is probably something else. Something genetic or something. But does that matter?
What do you mean?
I can sit here and talk about the technical stuff, about how cameras work and all that, and then we can go on to talk about lines in the image, about circles and triangles and rectangles, and about foreground and background and composition. But it will only take an hour or so, and it will only take you so far. To see those lines, to use those lines when you take pictures, you need to get you brain into the habit of looking for them. And no matter what you say, that takes time and effort and focus.
And it really doesn’t matter how good every one else is. It’s not a science, it’s not even about getting good grades or reviews from others. It’s about whether you like your pictures. And it’s about looking at others’ pictures to get some ideas for making your own pictures better or different. You think you are a bad photographer? Compared to whom? You don’t like your own photos? Good, that means you have an idea of how to improve them. You like to take close-ups of people? Good. Continue doing that, in the end you’ll have your own nose-hair exhibition. It’s about doing things over and over, it’s about trying to improve by not being happy with where you are. It’s easier than you fear, but it takes a lot more time than you hope.
So to sum it all up, I said, in one pithy sentence, how do I become a good photographer, then?
Take good pictures, he replied. The bill’s on me.