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Form and Content and Hard Work

Updated: Mar 24

Ansel [Adams] wrote six volumes on the subject. And you really don't need all that information. I found that too many of the West Coast types thought that they had to master all that. And they were so busy mastering it that perfection was always dangling in front of them, and they missed what wanted to get into the photograph.

                                              Paul Caponigro[1] 


He who is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.

                                             Abraham Maslow

In business, the legal profession, professional sports, understanding scales on a musical instrument – certainly hard work is important. You can’t get off the ground unless you initially throttle the engines up full. But in the netherworld of aesthetics hard work can be harmful. The non-linear mental world of imagination and intuition can’t be forced. It has to be watered and left alone.


I’m sure many photographers remember Fred Picker’s constant exhortations to work hard. Among his commands were, “Can you unpack and set up a view camera in 30 seconds? - Do it 50 times in a row.” Or to use about a dozen sheets of paper before getting anything approaching a good print. Or “are all your negatives meticulously filed with dates, etc? Is your darkroom as neat and well organized as mine?” Bless him. Fred once wrote that you should spend 8 hours with an 8x10 camera to make one picture.




There’s nothing wrong with hard work. And doing all those nuts and bolts procedures probably doesn’t do any harm, but it doesn’t mean much compared to being able to see the world as a intriguing visual metaphor. Knowing what’s really important to you, and working on seeing it well and making it interesting – that’s the most important skill a photographer can have. But, the argument goes, if I can’t set up my view camera in 30 seconds, I could miss an important picture! Maybe, but so what? There’s plenty more out there.


I don’t endorse sloppy working methods. There are so many little steps and details in photography, it’s important to not waste any motion and to do things correctly. It’s akin to having a meticulously organized kitchen. It’s nice, but you still might be a lousy cook.


As an arrogant 1st year MFA candidate, I used to scoff at 2nd year graduate students who endlessly struggled to set up their Deardorff view cameras on Gitzo tripods. Some of them took between 5 and 10 minutes – I could set up my wood tripod and 4x5 camera in less than 2. Great. The problem was that their pictures were poetic and resonant, and mine were static and dead.


If too much emphasis is placed on the linear, mechanical stuff – technique - then there’s a very real danger that this “hard work” approach bleeds out into the content. It happens a lot. Commonplace records result, not interesting pictures. As we used to say back in New Jersey, “that will not be good.”


Form is technique. Content is what the picture is about. The content part of photography is very difficult to master. Many never get it. Lots of well known heroes that show regularly in galleries haven’t gotten it. But their technique is flawless.


Form Is Easy


[F]ind out about the technique and then forget it. I often tell students, I’ve got six bags full of technique. But I never take all of them with me. One, maybe, is all I need. Then I go to work. I just don't want to trip over the technique. I need to use just enough to get the job done.

                          Paul Caponigro[2]


Form – technique - is easy. You make your test for shadow detail, and then a development time test for Zone VIII, use a film developer that separates the tones nicely, and behold! - you have the technique of the great masters. Easy. Painters need years to learn how to paint, and musicians need years to learn how to play; but you can learn black and white photographic technique in one afternoon. That’s good because you can now be reasonably confident that your negatives will print easily. The whole ritual is no more profound than cracking an egg without breaking the yolk.


But beware - once you’re making beautiful prints, you can be seduced. You become intoxicated by the brilliant Zone VIII-IX snow against the rich Zone III rock, and the black pine tree at the horizon. You’ll start seeking out subject matter because of the print tones rather than emotional resonance. That’s a death knell. One of the most harmful bits Picker ever wrote was this:


"[S]ometimes there are scenes that just shout for recording because of the certainty of a beautiful print. I find joy in subjects that ‘show off’ the strengths of my adopted medium even when my emotional involvement is not profound."


Yikes. That’s dangerous. It means that technique begins to be all important. And that, at times the only reason to take a picture is because you can technically do it. That it’s permissible to place form over content.


No, no, no; never, never, never - it’s not ever permissible to do that. If that’s how you think, you may as well restore a 1966 Corvette or collect model trains instead of photographing. That’s what Caponigro means about the 6 tool boxes. That form over content quote is from page 18 of Pickers Fine Print book. Look at the picture opposite – it’s embarrassingly bad. So are most of the pictures in that book. There’s one real beauty – on page 117. The 5 or 6 best of the rest are acceptable student pictures. Sorry Fred, but those Fine Print pictures are pretty lousy; and that’s why the book didn’t sell very well. His print quality was superb, the form is exceptional; but the content is weak – painfully weak. That will not be good.[3]


Content Is All Important


Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term - selectivity.  

Berenice Abbott


Rigid rules for “fine print” technique must never seep into what you’re seeing; never, never, never. Technique alone is not worth much. Making interesting pictures is Seeing. Good content is elusive, you can’t use a reliable formula to grasp it; and you can’t force it. No one rule solves all the problems. You’re in a constant state of uncertainty. Even at my best I throw away 30-40% of my negatives before I even file them. Occasionally I throw away all of them. And you need to embrace that uncertainty. You must be perfectly content to be unsure. Here’s why: if you’re not comfortable with uncertainty, you’ll drift into what you can be very certain about – technique. And that comforting assurance eventually overpowers the counter-intuitiveness necessary for consistently good seeing. What counter-intuitiveness? - Being comfortable with uncertainty.


I’ve never seen this happen with the female photographers I’ve known and taught. Women can’t wait to reveal what’s resounding within them. They couldn’t care less about technique. They barely have enough patience for the cheat sheet I give them (full sun, hazy sun, bright overcast, dark overcast). Most are content with “If in doubt, expose more and develop less.” In 1979, at RIT, I remember seeing 8x10 contact prints made by women where most of the picture was purposefully out of focus, or there was movement in the tree branches; and often prints had that blocky D-76 tone separation. Mortal sins according to the west coast school. But the pictures were very rich emotionally, the content went layers and layers deep. “Wow, there’s something different about this,” I thought.


Some men have this ability too, of course. But on average, women have a more natural feel for it; they’re consumed with the content and have no patience with technique.


I like the “impatience with the technical’ approach. There’s a chance for sloppy technique seeping in, but so what? The important remains secure when we’re impatient with the technical. There’s no chance that form will influence content. That’s a much healthier way to work. Quite a few Andrew Wyeth drawings and watercolors have his dogs paw prints on them. That’s lovely. If you dry your prints on plastic screens and your cat sleeps on top of them, that’s lovely too; it may ruin a few prints but it’ll make you a better photographer.




With practice the craft will come almost of itself, in spite of you and all the more easily if you think of something besides technique. 

Paul Gauguin


Alex was a good friend of mine in college – an extremely bright guy. He knew quite a lot about photography. He also liked science fiction, he could talk for hours about it. He devoured science fiction movies, good ones and bad ones. He introduced me to Plan 9 From Outer Space – a classic! And every year at Halloween Alex created a “spook house” in a campus outbuilding. It was so good that little kids would cry because they were so scared. If only he’d take his photography that seriously, I thought. The thing is, he did. But he was nurturing content, not form. Blockheaded, I didn’t see that at the time.


I thought Alex was a careless photographer. He never used a tripod, he used a 6x6 Bronica because a view camera was too much work, he said; he bracketed his exposures if he wasn’t sure, and his darkroom methods were messy – stuff all over the work surface. Filing negatives meticulously? – he’d be lucky to find them half the time.


I’m sure you’re ahead of me. Alex made very compelling pictures. They embodied the same strange, unique quality that he saw in the world with that great imagination of his. We went on a trip once to the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. I remember he took a picture holding the Bronica one-handed. We were rushing because a storm was coming. I couldn’t believe it - he’ll never get a good negative that way. But the picture was lovely. All of his pictures from the trip were beautiful – ethereal, strange, unearthly. Mine were dead looking, lifeless; like Picker’s from the Fine Print book.[4] And for all his supposed sloppiness, Alex’s print quality was always about the same as mine. (He used the same film, paper, etc.) His print quality was plenty good enough, it was damn good in fact . . .


He’d fight me tooth and nail over content, though he didn’t call it that. I’d frequently spout off in those days about some West-Coast school commands: the entire picture should be sharp and therefore visually attractive, wide angle distortion is bad, don’t make landscape pictures in rainy weather, backlight is bad, close up portraits are overly dramatic. He’d immediately dismiss it. “Who makes up these rules?” he’d say. I thought he was being lazy. In fact, he was preserving the essential trait of maintaining the most flexible viewpoint. Eventually, thankfully, years later I understood. Needless to say, Alex had no use for Fred Picker. One time he looked up from reading a Zone VI newsletter and said to me, “Well, you can tell he’s got a lot of money.”




So form must never influence technique; compliment it, yes. Technique is garnish, not the main course. Good photographers are very comfortable with the most indeterminate, non-specific aspect of their work. Bad ones cloak their shortcomings in what they can be certain of. (What’s that? - tell me . . .)


And – as a side note - what is emotionally powerful in photographs, the content; can be described. That’s another difficult skill that almost no one has, especially today: the ability to critically discuss the content in art. And anyone who proudly dismisses that ability – the skill to analyze and discuss content in photographs - is saying that they know nothing about visual elements in pictures;[5] that they’re visually illiterate. It’s the “seeing” equivalent of not being able to read music. It’s being happy with ignorance, with having no distinct visual direction. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.  


There is a good and bad. Otherwise a pile of blocks that a 4-year old makes is equal to a Bernini sculpture; and a selfie by a fourth grader is equal to an Atget. If someone cannot tell you what makes a photograph emotionally resonant, they’re visually illiterate.


 “That head of yours should be for use as well as ornament. . . . There is no use of arguing about it now; I tell you that it is so.”




I’ll end with some quotes -


All technical refinements discourage me. Perfect photography, larger screens, hi-fi sound, all make it possible for mediocrities slavishly to reproduce nature; and this reproduction bores me. . . . What interests me is the interpretation of life by an artist. The personality of the film maker interests me more than the copy of an object.


I believe that perfection handicaps cinema.  

Jean Renoir

[1] The quote is cleaned up.

[2] Id.

[3] Fred Picker’s hero was Paul Strand. Strand is a dangerous mentor for anyone, but especially for someone struggling to see.

[4] My one brilliant teacher from RIT called The Fine Print, “a book of prints.”

[5] In 1979 I bristled against having to learn this. Someone told me it was absolutely vital that I do – “Writers don’t get together to discuss typewriter ribbons,” he said.

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