I began my formal study of photography under the tutelage of an excellent teacher. Mitch Clark was the director of the art department at Blackburn College. One of his many artistic mediums was photography and which he taught. In my opinion Mitch does not get enough credit for the many students he influenced with his understated genius.
Mitch taught us to be exact in our technique and to have a full understanding of aesthetics in everything. His method of teaching had a profound influence on me. When I asked Mitch questions about photography his answer was usually to tell me to go to the library and look up such and such book on one of the masters of photography and look at it thoroughly and then come back to him. I would do so and return. He would ask what did I learn from looking at these photographer’s works. I learned a lot through looking at the work of such masters as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edwin Weston, Lewis Hine, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Smith, Dorothy Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Alfred Newman and others.
With digital technology photographs can be manipulated more than ever. Images that are purely from the imagination can be made. I have a facebook friend who posts photos there that are great flights of fantasy. Many of them are formed in the real world but embellished. These photos can be awe-inspiring, but to me often then leave something wanting. Often they are just too unreal, so they don’t connect viscerally to me.
One of the things that made me think about these issues was a story I saw online that was a critique of the most recent crop of news photography and photojournalism awards. The article asked why many of these award-winning photos look more like movie posters than news photographs?
Through Mitch Clark I was introduced to masters of photography who, in their photographs, represented what is real. These photographers practiced what came to be known as “straight” photography. They did not overly manipulate their images and attempted to represent the scenes they reproduced as realistically as possible. This “straight” photography movement was in contrast to art photographers who manipulated their images to create a scene that was more like a painting.
As a result of being exposed to these photographers I learned to appreciate the real over the artificial.
I value what is sincere and honest. I have always strived to maintain that as my own personal work ethic in my photography. Sometimes I have wondered if it has hurt my career when I see other photographers who don’t follow such a rigid ethic win more awards and accolades than me and land the good jobs, while I struggle to maintain a living. Well, I guess I am not alone in this struggle. Eugene Smith, who is considered to be the photographer who fathered the concept of the photo story and is a huge influence on photojournalism died with very little to his name as a result of his refusal to compromise his principles. As a result his legacy is a lasting one and his work speaks for itself.