A Photographic Manifesto
Up until today, I did not have a photography manifesto
I have a manifesto for music making. In fact, I’ve written several over the years. I have one for writing and I even have a cooking manifesto (which inspired me to start Beef & Steel). But, for photography, nothing.
This really hit home while reading A Lesser Photographer, an excellent manifesto for minimalist photography by C.J. Chilvers. Whatever kind of photographer you are, I think you’ll find something to inspire or challenge you in Chilver’s ideas.
Manifestos take time to write and, in terms of photography, should probably only be written by people who have a lot more experience than I do. Still, I’d like offer this, in very draft and provisional form, as an attempt at a Manifesto for Photography.
Truth And Light – A Manifesto For Photography
Pay Attention To Truth And Light– Great photos illuminate reality. They shed light, physically and conceptually on the subjects of the image. Our craft can do amazing things when we manage light well and put ourselves at the service of truth.
When you take a photo, ask yourself, what is the light doing in this place and what in this photo do I want people to see and focus on?
Gear Matters In Proportion To Your Output – The photographic industry has built a huge circus around your wallet, with new gear at the heart of it. There is always some new camera, plugin, piece of software or other kit that promises to transform your photography. In response to this there is a trend to downplay and even question the importance of the gear you use.
Gear matters, but how much it matters depends on your final photographic output. Decide on the gear you need based on where and in what format people will see your images.
To Photograph Is To Edit Reality – A camera cannot lie and it cannot tell the truth. The camera only ever allows us to capture a slice of reality and put it in a frame, which means every photo is at best, an edited version of reality.
The photographer’s craft is in bringing technology and technique into the service of editing reality. What is your reality and what part of that reality do you want to share with us?
Perspective Is Everything – A photo is a point of view on the world. Change the perspective and you change the photo. By taking a photo that reflects the way a child sees the world, or an ant, or a person who loves something you hate, you open up a whole world of possibilities in your work. And, perspective is your way to control distance and relationships in a photo.
Vary the height your camera is from the ground and the distance between your camera and your subject when you photograph. Consider the relationships between the things in your frame; small & big, important and unimportant, beautiful & ugly. Study the work of architects and cartoonists, they are masters of perspective.
Contrast Is Relevance – Contrast can create interest but low contrast images can be interesting as well. Contrast is a way to show the differences between things in an image and also, more importantly, the relevance of those differences. Increasing contrast is a way to say, the edges here matter and decreasing contrast is likewise a way to say the differences matter less.
Use contrast selectively, as a way to convey the meaning and relationships between the things in your photos. Adding more contrast (and clarity) may appeal to you in some ways, but might obscure the purpose of your photo in others.
Popularity Is A Game And All Games Can Be Rigged – Want more likes and followers on Instagram? Just buy them. There are plenty of services that will do this for you and it’s cheaper and easier than buying a new camera or improving your craft.
Don’t confuse popularity with quality. Social media can be helpful, but honestly, is being a hit on Social Media really your life’s ambition?
Drink From Many Wells – We are blessed with so many amazing resources for learning about photography. But, it’s easy to get caught up in buying the same ideas from the same people. Drinking from one well might stave off the thirst, but it could also make us creatively one dimensional and predictable.
Be a confident individual and draw from a range of sources. Look for ideas from photographers who work in other fields and live in other countries and also explore resources from other arts, like painting, graphic design or cartooning that can give you a fresh perspective on visual communication.
Rush, Or Slow Down, Be Stable, Or Unstable. Photographs are a product of choices we make. They can be instinctive, or considered decisions. We can mount our cameras on sturdy tripods, or wave them around us as we run. These are all choices we can make.
Give yourself permission to take snapshots and give yourself time to make detailed compositions. Learn how both work and when you need to switch from one to the other.
Not Everyone’s Opinion Matters – It’s easy to share photos online and getting likes and nice comments can feel wonderful. But, only a few people will really be able to help you tell your good photos from your average ones or give you solid advice on how to improve your craft. And, bad advice can send you downhill, either chasing wrong ideas or becoming fearful in your work.
Identify the people you know who really understand photography and who want to see you improve and put more weight on what they have to say. If you don’t know anyone who fits the bill seek them out and put your work in front of them, even if you have to pay to do so.
Don’t Join A Cult – You’ll find photographic cults everywhere, online and in real life. They have their own online presences, books and even workshops. Although the cult members don’t usually dress alike, their photos often look the same, they talk the same photographic language and, mostly importantly, they hate the same trends or gear.
Why are you into photography? If you want religion go to church and if you want community, there are always cheaper hobbies.
Money Isn’t Everything – Becoming a professional photographer is not necessarily the only, or even the best route to becoming a better photographer. There are a lot of lousy, or at least lacklustre professionals out there. And, the job that will (reliably) get you paid might not be the ones that will help you grow or develop in the direction that is right for you.
If your goal is to produce photos that uniquely reflect your vision and skills, then align your life accordingly. If that means keeping your day job, turning down some paid gigs, or being a semi-pro, then embrace those choices as your path to photographic self-determination
No One Technique Will End Civilisation – Many photographers have a pet hate, be it iPhoneography, HDR, Tilt-Shift, or Retro-ism. Having dislikes can be useful because it clarifies our path and reinforces the choices we make in creating our own style. But, investing too much in hating something, or recruiting followers to your hate-cause is misspent emotion. And, all too often these hates are a way of rationalising our own fears or lack of understanding.
Decide what you like but invest your emotional energy into your craft. Be open, because even techniques we dislike, or don’t understand can be used to create art.
Let Your Limitations Be Your Muse – It’s tempting to think that by removing your limitations, especially gear limitations, you will free your creativity. Usually, it works the other way round. Your limitations are what push you to be creative, to work harder and then come up with something amazing. Some limitations need to be fixed, but most just need to be embraced.
Say to yourself, I will make great photos, not in spite of my limitations, but because of them. Let your weaknesses and defects become part of what makes your work unique and recognisable and rejoice in having a visual voice that is all your own.
So, there you have it, very incomplete and rough around the edges. Of course, I’m curious to hear what you think, or if you have your own manifesto you’d like to share.