Saturday, May 11, 2013


Hidden behind a viewfinder
("The Photojournalist,"
Andreas Feinenger's
portrait of  Dennis Stock)
Hiding behind a camera isolates a photographer from their subject, whatever that subject might be. There is a way to break through the isolation and though it should be obvious, many never try it.

It seems like forever since I last wrote concerning the mechanics of composition. And you may not remember that when I first approached the subject I said that there have historically been three main modes of accomplishing this. Well...I actually touched on only the first two: the groundglass and the viewfinder. Hmmmm...whatever happened to that missing third?...and what even was it, anyway?

Whether looking at a surrogate of the final photograph on a groundglass (or its modern digital counterpart), or at a limited view of the world through a viewfinder, a photographer is usually isolated to some degree from the world he hopes to image. However, there is a third way of composing the image that actually connects the artist to the subject and immerses them in the world.

Hidden behind a groundglass
In the 1920s and 1930s, cameras had sufficiently progressed technologically to where they were relatively portable, light-weight, and technically simple to operate. Smaller, faster photographic materials ("film") coupled with faster lens systems also had a major impact. These factors had the distinct effect of allowing the photographer to leave the studio behind and begin finding photographic adventure "on the street." It was a monumental leap for the photographic artist to see her art and craft as not simply that of portraiture and still-life in the studio or even of landscapes (if she dared venture out of doors). She could now join the rest of humanity where they lived much of their lives– in action and on the street. This was the beginning of what we would today call photojournalism.

The groundglass obviously became a totally useless antiquity in this new setting. And even though most cameras still contained a viewfinder, those who looked for the real breath of life on the street (and wherever life happened) couldn't be confined behind the optical system of a viewfinder. They preferred to walk among their people, maybe with the camera held at their waist instead of raised to their eye, looking their subjects directly in the eye– eye to eye.

This visual communication allowed the artist to be in real human relationship with their subject, however brief that might be. The subject now saw the photographer as another human being rather than some kind of bio-opto-mechanical-hybrid monster. And the photographer could now see their subject as not simply some image to be composed within a little rectangular frame, but as a real, living and breathing person who existed within a larger environment.

This alternative mode of composing an image abandons the precision of framing and composition that is offered by the groundglass and the viewfinder, but it definitely makes up for this deficit with increased intimacy and immediacy with the subject. This mode takes some practice to get right, but muscle-memory will eventually take over and make "aiming from the hip" second nature.

Try taking photographs with your camera at waist level— don't worry, with modern cameras "film" is cheap, no, FREE! Take as many as you like, attempting to frame the image you desire. When your practice sessions are over you can easily discard your attempts. Do this often, over a period of weeks and months, and you will see a steadily improving ability to point your camera from waist-level at anything you are looking at and capture an image that accurately frames the one you imagined.

A side benefit of all this is that you can also gain a deepening aesthetic sense that can free you from overly depending upon precision and analysis. Enjoy your new-found freedom!

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