This may be the most pointless article I have written to date. It may be the most contentious, it may be the most confusing for some, the most tired for others. The word used to describe the act of photography does not seem up for discussion by many photographers, for others it has no relevance. Despite all of this I am going to make a suggestion because I saw the conversation rear its head once again recently online.
For approximately forty-nine years I had only heard one word used to describe the act of photography and the time spent in taking part in creating photographs. That word was ‘take’ and the time spent doing that was referred to as a ‘shoot’. I had heard those words relating to photography throughout my life. They were descriptions used by photographers I commissioned as an art director and by those I worked with, never did I hear the word ‘make’ or any discussion around the semantics surrounding photographic practice.
The first time I heard the word ‘make’ in connection with pressing a shutter button was when I entered academia and began to teach photography. For the first time I was hearing from and speaking with people who had studied photography as a degree or as post-graduates. The photographers I had worked with previously had either been self-taught, apprenticed to a photographer as an assistant or studied for a Higher National Diploma within the polytechnic system of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. As such they had not studied photography from a critical studies perspective.
The new people I met seemed to have a problem with the use of the word ‘take’ as they believed it to have aggressive, macho, and some colonial connotations. Instead they preferred to use the word ‘make’ and I can see why when attempting to place the photographic medium into a contemporary art practice context, whilst being aware of social, political and economic sensitivities.
I started to see their point of view but never felt comfortable with a word that seemed to imply a process of manipulation in the moment of capture. In fact it seems to me to be a more appropriate description of many of the commissions I had been involved with as an art director where the resultant image was a contrivance of facts, situations and elements thanks to the involvement of many people being involved in making the photograph happen.
It was only whilst photographing a portrait of a well known fashion designer for a magazine a year or so ago that I found a word that I felt was both accurate and appropriate to use to describe the act of photography. I always speak with the person I am photographing throughout the session, explaining what I am doing, why I am doing it and engaging in general discussion to create a sense of collaboration and connection. Whilst moving around the room, trying to achieve the image I wanted I realised that what I was trying to do was ‘find’ the picture. This revelation has informed my approach to photography ever since that day.
I therefore now describe my process as one of ‘finding’, not ‘making’ or ‘taking’.
Now as I said at the beginning of this article, everything I have written here may be completely pointless in addressing a discussion as debated to death as the semantics of photography themselves. If that is the case then I apologise for wasting your time.
However, if what I have said makes some sense and helps you navigate those semantics then it has not been a waste or your time or mine.
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.
Grant, here’s what I think.. the creative process in ‘making’ a photo neither starts nor stops at tripping the shutter for me. If this implies a process of manipulation – in the moment of capture or after – it’s because it is a necessary part of being creative. Our masters did it in the dark room in the analogue days.
While I usually ‘take’ snaps when on holiday, I do try to ‘find’ the right angle when the location offers me an opportunity for a potentially great travel photograph.
Having said all that, I followed with interest the “contrivance of facts” that Steve McCurry had to answer for. The subject matter for Nat Geo clearly limits the extent of manipulation. And so it should. The same logic applies to us and we’re not hypocrites.
In the end, we will have enriched our vocabulary as part of the maturation or evolution (or as you described it in an earlier podcast, “democratisation”) process to describe the act of photography.
Thank you for your enormous contribution to the world of photography through podcasts & thought provoking Op-eds.
My pleasure and thanks for the considered response to this article, best Grant
Thieves “take” photographs… artisans make them. Lucky artists occasionally find them…
“Taking good pictures is easy. Making very good pictures is difficult. Making great pictures is almost impossible.” – Constantine Manos, Magnum