Learning Photography Without a Camera…

You need a camera to record an image but not to see an image. Let me explain. The great art director Alexey Brodovitch was responsible for mentoring many great photographers including Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Hiro, Tony Ray Jones, through his evening classes and summer schools as well as a commissioner of photography. He worked in a pre-digital age before the LCD screen when book and magazine layouts were sketched and collaged, when the process of pressing a camera button had financial and time based consequences. His answer was simple, to learn to make photographs before ever picking up a camera.

To learn to frame and compose an image within a rectangle he suggested that you cut a rectangle into a sheet of card, to remove the shape to leave you with a card frame and then to use the frame to frame the world as you see it using no other lens than the ones you were born with. It’s a simple suggestion but sophisticated in it’s application.

Without understanding how to construct an image from its constituent parts there is no basis to the making of the photograph. Luck becomes the dominant factor and the chance of creating a successful image is greatly reduced. By removing the camera you remove the pressure to succeed. Now you may consider this to be pointless, after all what is the point of you have nothing to show for your time spent looking and composing. But I will argue that what we are discussing here is the process and the importance of that process.

Before we look through the camera we visualize the potential for making a photograph, we consider what will be the central focus for the image, what we will include and what we will exclude. This is the first step in making an image, the second part is looking through the camera lens to refine, resolve and make a record as a photograph. This is common sense and no revelation but it is surprising how many photographers I speak with who spend little time on step one placing total reliance on step two. Brodovitch didn’t think this was a good idea and neither do I.

So, why not save some time and remove some anxiety by starting to frame the world with a piece of card it may not be as crazy as it may sound.

Image: Alexey Brodovitch with Richard Avedon.

Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023

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