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A Sense of Wonder

Updated: Oct 2, 2021

“... amazement at subject matter [is why I started to photograph].” Edward Weston

Catching borrowed light, Nevada, USA

A sense of wonder was certainly what motivated me to become a photographer but there are many kinds of wonder. Initially, for me, it was wonderment at process.

Arthur C Clarke once wrote that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I certainly felt in the presence of magical forces whilst making my first black and white print. Standing in a darkroom, illuminated by the otherworldly glow of a red safe light, I watched with fascination and increasing excitement as the image bloomed on the surface of the blank sheet in the development tray. I feel a little sad for photographers who have only ever seen a print regurgitated, laboriously by an inkjet printer. All the magic that I felt is missing.

A new wonder arose when I started using transparency film.

But before I could get a chance to wonder at any individual transparency I had to contend with delayed gratification. There were none of the reassurances that digital photography now supplies; no histogram to confirm that I hadn’t made a huge exposure error nor thumbnail image to affirm or repudiate my compositional choices. At a minimum it would be hours before the freshly processed sheet was in my hand. Quite often it was weeks. As quickly as I could get it there, the transparency would be upon the lightbox and I would be using a loupe to examine every square centimetre in detail.

If, when I made the image, everything had worked as it should then this was one of the most wonderful experiences in photography. The pristine beauty of a sheet of Velvia is incredible. An image produced with transmitted light has a vibrancy and depth that can never be matched by a print. For me, the transparency was the finished product; I needed no further verification or justification of my choices. There was no need to print it or publish it. I was done, my photographic desire satiated. I miss those moments.

Storm warning, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

In thirty years as a photographer, the way I make images has changed dramatically. The quiet, deliberate ritual using a 5x4 view camera has gone, replaced by a faster, more reflective process with a digital mirrorless camera. Unlike a transparency, the digital image arrives incomplete. It is, in Ansel Adam’s terms, more akin to a negative; it represents a score which requires a performance to bring it to life. In Ansel’s era the performance took place in the darkroom; in the current era it’s more likely to be in Lightroom. Whatever the process, my feeling of astonishment when I behold a new, satisfying image has not dimmed. Even before I began photographing using transparency film I became fascinated with the difference between how I see and how the camera sees. This realm of wonder seems endless. Wonder at subject gradually overtook my wonder at process.

However wondrous, process is only a foundation. It is, after all, the content of the images that we should pay the most attention to. Content and technique are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship. But a fascination in the process or attendant technology alone will never lead to images that intrigue, surprise or make an audience’s heart beat faster. I often tell my students that no one ever wept simply because a photo was perfectly sharp or perfectly exposed. You might stand in front of one of your images and weep because it isn’t, but that’s quite a different story. Rather than perfect rendering, moving the viewer should be the highest ambition of every photographer.

Perhaps we are led astray by the manufacturers’ constant enticements to acquire their latest offerings. Be it hardware or software, there is a tendency amongst some photographers to place too high a value on equipment or technique. The quality of these matter little if the resulting images lack emotion, depth or subtlety.

US troops assaulting Omaha Beach © Robert Capa

One need only think of Robert Capa’s famous photographs from the D-Day landings to realise that quality in a photograph is about so much more than sharpness, resolution, accurate colour rendition or any one of a hundred other attributes that we are constantly being told are paramount. In one sense the photographic process failed Capa; working in low light he push-processed the film resulting in very grainy images. Most are also not sharp; it’s hard to stand perfectly still in pounding surf whilst bullets scream past your ears. In fact the few crisply focused frames seem lacking in energy and drama.

Yet the images speak powerfully to us, both because and in spite of their technical failings. The chaos and fear of battle is expressed in the very grain of each snatched and blurry frame, in a way that would never be possible with perfectly exposed and sharp images. The all too few frames move us because we can imagine ourselves in the photographer’s shoes. What matters in these images is the perfect synergy of content and the visual language used to express it.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that technique doesn’t matter, rather that it is of little importance if it doesn’t support the content of the photograph.

One of the great joys that photography has brought me is that it has opened my eyes to the world around me in a way that I doubt would have happened otherwise. Landscape has provided the cloth from which I have tailored my images. I don’t think Weston meant wonder simply at the object photographed. The subject of a great photograph is rarely that which is baldly delineated by light on a photographic emulsion or a sensor plane. It matters little, however, what we photograph. What is important is that we should be at least as passionate, if not more passionate, about our subject than we are about the photographic process. We need to find wonder anew in even the smallest detail each time we make an image. If this balance isn’t achieved we are unlikely to produce images that speak of more than superficial aesthetic concerns.

My aim is to make images with my subject not of my subject. The places where I make photographs fill me with wonder and inspire me to form an understanding of them, however imperfect. I try to express those complementary feelings through my images and hopefully enlighten and amaze the viewer. Just making a technically good, classically composed image isn’t enough. Photography has the ability to transcend its subject, to do so much more than just make aesthetically pleasing illustrations. Powerful images distil something of the wonder we find in the world and this is what keeps me amazed after thirty years of collecting light and time.

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Jay Patel
Jay Patel
Jan 21, 2021

Reading this reminds me why your first two books were so important to me years ago. It's like the philosophy of photography! The profound why of making a photograph more than the how. It makes me just want to pick up a camera, any camera. More please!

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