If there was one book in my photography book collection that I would grab first in the event of a fire this would be it !

Diane Arbus – Revelations 

The Question of Belief by Sandra S Philips 

The following extracts are quoted in Diane Arbus – Revelations the Essay by Sandra S Philips. Some are quotes from Arbus’ own writings and some are quotes from the Author.

Arbus:  “For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated.” 

Arbus: There’s a kind of magic power thing about the camera. You’re carrying some slight magic which does something to (the subject). 

Sandra S Philips: On Winogrand and Friedlander  – “The street work of Winogrand and Friedlander is less obviously composed than her photography. Their photographs often play upon happenstance and the irony of finding what strange and marvellous conjunctions occur within the frame” 

Arbus: “Everybody has this thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw. Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way, but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I’ve always called the gap between intention and effect” 

Arbus: ” A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know” 



Dorothea Lange


The following quote by Francis Bacon was tacked onto Dorothea LAnge’s darkroom door in 1923, where it remained until her death in 1965 

The Contemplation of things as they are        

Without error or confusion 

Without substitution or imposture 

Is in itself a nobler thing 

Than a whole harvest of invention 

The following notes have been extracted from this book; 

Notes From :  Dorothea Lange – With a critical essay by George P Elliott – Museum of Modern Art. Second Printing 1968 

In every are glancing is an enemy of vision, but in none so much as in photography. Mass journalism has trained us to glance, and the big money photographers have made themsleves masters of the craft of the quick impression: visual elements so whimsically juxtapsoed that the effect is to jolt or tickle the viewer. 

It is the photographer’s faith that anything really seen is worth seeing. 

There are ways to get a viewer to second look at photographs which do not make a socko first impression, and the photographer can do something about some of these ways. However essential pre-condition is beyond his control: the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate. 

On “Migrant Mother” 

This picture, like a few others of hers, like a few others of a few other photographers, leads a life of its own. That is, it is widely accepted as a work of art with its own message rather than its makers, far more people know the picture than know who made it. There is a sense in which the photographer’s apotheosis is to become as anonymous as his camera.  

What had come to matter to her most was that a photograph, perfect or not should say, “Here is what these people look like now”. 

“Vision” has religious or mystical overtones. Yet no art is less mystical, by its nature, than photography , especially referential photography 

The appearance of actual things, which comprise photography’s subject matter, are by definition superficial and often illusory or deceptive as well. 

A paradox: glancing is a foe of art, yet a person walking around in the world with a camera in his hand must see in glances. A camera shutter does not glance so much as super glance. Glancing for so short a time, it takes out of time what it sees. 


Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange 









The Indecisive Decisive Moment

Here’s another one from yesterday’s trip into town. As street photographs go it’s not really doing much but in a way that’s why I like it. Ordinary people doing ordinary things. I like that the green shopping bag has ‘tea’ written on it while the lady is drinking a bottle of orange pop.  Henri Cartier-Bresson talks about the ‘Decisive Moment’ while Elliott Erwitt talks about the ‘Indecisive Moment’. I like to think some of my images sit somewhere in between the two.

On the High St there was a white Transit van parked up and this was in the front window. Not my idea of a visual joke but it takes all sorts doesn’t it.

Teaching Photography

I’ve just completed a morning’s teaching session. It was a free “Taster” for the Photography for Beginners Course I’m running in October. I try and teach in the Adult Learning Sector. I say “try” because I’m still not sure whether I’m a successful teacher or not. I’ve had some good feedback in the past so I guess I must be doing something reasonably right but it’s not for me to say whether I’m a good teacher or not. The proof of course is how my leaners learn, whether and how  they progress. Most of my learners come to my classes with a super duper digital camera they’ve bought but not quite plucked up the courage and confidence to get it out of Auto or Program Mode. The Manual is usually as thick as a brick and in several different languages and assumes that the new owner knows what an Aperture and a Shutter Speed is and the difference between white balance and ISO etc. That’s where I enter the room. I have to go right back to basics and I mean right back. Exactly how one explains Aperture and Shutter Speed and how they combine to create a “correct” exposure you’d think would be relatively straightforward but you’d be wrong. Thinking the best way to explain the concept  is not easy. Even the filling the bucket of water analogy can be problematic when one learner queries what about water pressure coming through the hose ?  Sometimes I think they’re doing it deliberately. I had one lady adamant there was no correct exposure meter indication when in manual mode despite me showing it her in the camera manual and suggesting she just needed to find the setting on her camera. As this was a taster session I was not even going near Exposure Compensation ! I think I’m patient. My learners have very different learning abilities and I still remember how long it took  me for the exposure penny to drop in my early twenties. I pretty much taught myself.  I don’t mind that they don’t at first get it because I’ll keep explaining it to them until they do in whatever simplified way I can. Keep it simple stupid. Cameras these days are not easy either. While they’ve become easier to get the perfectly exposed shot the multitude of function buttons all doing pretty much the same thing i.e. setting aperture and shutter (landscape, portrait. sport mode etc)  are confusing and intimidating to the unknowing. Many learners in their enthusiasm jump ahead of themselves and want to know what the thing is before I’ve explained the thing they need to know in order to understand the what the thing is, if you get my meaning. How do you explain how depth of field is achieved for example without first explaining the different combinations of aperture and shutter speed to create exposure and then going on to explain how the choice of aperture affects the depth of field and has to be considered in your choice. I’m not asking for help here folks. After three or four years I’ve pretty much got it sorted but it’s not always easy.

I finished off by showing some of my less challenging work. Trying to explain that photography is not just weddings and portraits is another eye opener for new learners.

Understanding a photograph


A new camera won’t improve my photography. I am under no illusions. A change from an SLR to a Rangefinder might change the way I look at something through the viewfinder. It might even change my approach to the medium but it won’t improve my photography. I’m not saying it can’t be improved upon. Absolutely not. On the contrary. I’m my own worst critic and that’s how it should be. Sometimes I look at my images and……well ? There’s a difference between want and need. I don’t need a new camera. I can manage without one. I just fancy a change, that’s all.

What might improve my photography is my continued attempts to understand the subject by reading around and within it. Books by authors whose capacity to think about things and elucidate their thoughts far better than I can. I’m currently reading Understanding a Photograph – John Berger (he died recently) –  Edited and introduced by Geoff Dyer (he wrote a good book on photography called The Ongoing Moment.

Here’s a paragraph which resonates somewhat with my own thoughts on photography being viewed as fine art and particularly with this continued assessment by those supposed photography experts who seldom get beyond discussing whether a photograph is well composed or not.

“We must rid ourselves of a confusion brought about by continually comparing  photography with the fine arts. Every handbook on photography talks about  composition. The good photograph is the well‐composed one. Yet this is true only in so  far as we think of photographic images imitating painted ones. Painting, is an art of  arrangement: therefore it is reasonable to demand that there is some kind of order in what is arranged. Every  relation between forms in a painting is to some degree adaptable to the painter’s purpose. This is not the case with photography (Unless we  include those absurd studio works in which the photographer arranges every detail of  his subject before he takes the picture). Composition in the profound, formative sense  of the word cannot enter into photography.”


Over the next few weeks I will be adding my Photography Reading List to a new page on this Blog and I’ll welcome suggestions from readers for more.



MA Photography Notes

Susan Sontag – On Photography

Photography Fails for Five Reasons

  1. A photograph is both a piece of time and space. By including or excluding things its arbitrary borders both create and break relationships. The temporal and spatial dislocation results in social reality being presented as small discontinuous particles.
  2. A photograph only shows us the surface, so it has many meanings and encourages us to deduce or intuit what the reality was like.
  3. Photography can only give us knowledge of the world if we accept the world as we see it. But this is the opposite of understanding which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. Photographs have a use in giving us a mental picture of things but they always  hide more than they reveal.
  4. While photographs can arouse conscience this is only a semblance of ethical or political knowledge because it is always sentimental ( whether it is cynical or humanist )
  5. By duplicating the world in such a comprehensive way it has made the world seem more available that it really is.