Before I began studying my PhD, I had incubated my love for photography through appreciation, and occasional writing on the topic.
This post, originally written in 2011, contains some interesting insights – as well as a snapshot of the pre-academic author.
‘Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst’ – Henri Cartier-Bresson.
THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE
Cartier-Bresson’s oft repeated mantra resonates among photographers seeking a measured progression. For those hoping to reach a level of seemingly effortless professional output, his famous quote can be considered a generally accurate rule of thumb. Surpassing ten-thousand images more or less guarantees a greater personal understanding of a photographer’s own work and technique.
Despite this, the maxim is perhaps misconstrued contextually today; when you consider the time it would take to create ten-thousand satisfactory images in the dark room. The extent which digital photography speeds up the process of producing images suggests that the number should be perhaps multiplied by a factor of ten. That is, in order to achieve the same level of competence.
THE COST OF IMPROVEMENT
The price of film required to produce ten-thousand satisfactory images would likely boggle the mind of the contemporary hobbyist. Simply dividing the total by the thirty-six exposures held on an individual reel of film would probably not be enough to represent the total (three-hundred and thirteen individual rolls of film at the very least). This of course does not include the price of printing and dark room materials.
This is a significant level of investment on the part of the photographer compared to today’s standards. Furthermore, with a cost per shot ratio factored in to the capturing process, what emerges is arguably a more considered approach to individual exposures.
This alone would perhaps go so far as ruling out any but the most committed amateur in reaching Cartier-Bresson’s figurative starting line before bankrupting themselves.
To reach ten thousand without producing work for money, the photographer would require a great level of determination and commitment to turn a blind eye to the small fortune that it would cost them to reach it.
This would go so far in explaining the historical lack of purely conceptual photographers until the arrival of digital technology.
AN EXCEPTIONAL COMMITMENT
Economic commitment however is a given for any of today’s professionals, with an array of technologies attempting to capture the imagination of the photographer by offering new optical opportunities. However commitment to producing images goes further than simply affording the cost of equipment.
By understanding the amount of time required in isolation to produce ten-thousand images physically, we begin to really understand the profile of the kind of photographer Cartier-Bresson had in mind.
As a master of photography, Cartier-Bresson produced a body of work that remains to this day at the apex of street photography. With images containing abundant energy in the seemingly effortless capture of subjects at what he coined ‘the decisive moment’, as well as an underlying poetry in his spatial compositions.
Such a level of fluency in his work could only be achieved through conscientious development which is a implicit factor in the repetition of the lengthy analogue process.
Whilst it would be farcical to suggest that Cartier-Bresson would have not reached such a fluency using contemporary digital process, it does seem that his images are idiosyncratically empowered by the underlying analogue method.
The way in which the contemporary masters invest themselves as wholly as Cartier-Bresson into their work remains to be seen at this time. Or at the very least, the universality of the process has become far more ambiguous.
IN THE DARK CONFRONTED BY LIGHT
Those who are familiar of the practice of dark room photography will support the statement that it is (despite its more aggravating time requirements) gravely missed as an mandatory phase of image creation.
To develop three hundred and thirteen rolls of film this would require approximately one hundred sessions in the dark room by my reckoning.The result of this being an abundance of hours of solitary confinement for the photographer with their work.
This time would likely result in constant focused appraisal of work by identifying strengths and negating weaknesses. Key factors that have changed include: the the banal rigidity of the method and the familiar isolation of the scenario that were crucially punctuated by the chemical science of development. In tandem, these promoted an extremely healthy environment for the theoretical appraisal of work.
My belief is the absence of this key environment this is the greatest loss for the digital photographer. This is exemplified when you consider the stark juxtaposition between being static in the dark room and being out in the world capturing images. Such long periods of seclusion can surely only result in a renewed thirst to find good light and people.
There are also leagues of photographers who have not seen their work physically printed, let alone experienced printing them themselves. This is problematic as a true appreciation of colour, contrast and grain in particular, can only be obtained through looking at printed work.
THE NEW DARK ROOM IS LIGHTROOM
Despite this loss, the digital revolution has brought many great positives into the medium. The infinite and cheap capacity for widespread image production that is available now has promoted a cartography of the minutiae of visual experience, which is no longer too superficial to warrant the cost of an exposure.
We now enjoy the liberty of finding photography to be less rigidly dominated by an economic subtext, though this does mean that images are made without an underlying element of risk. This lack of jeopardy requires self discipline on the part of the photographer to develop their body of work effectively.
The critical gap has been fulfilled somewhat by social critique of work on image-sharing websites. Unfortunately, the understanding of a collection of work here or otherwise digitally is a poor substitute for a physical portfolio developed physically over an extended period of time.
Furthermore, it is somewhat of an issue that the search for refinement of the personal photographic process is now more likely to be decided by peer consensus rather than the self-appreciation of work. This promotes a conformity and perhaps draws focus away from possibilities of individual nuance and perspective.
Thankfully however, this is a gap that is likely to be bridged by the continued development of intuitive software and platforms that draw closer to the precedent whilst capitalizing on the possibilities of new technologies. Furthermore, artistic avenues of exhibition and critique tend to avoid this irrational mode of photography altogether.
A DEPTH OF APPRECIATION
To conclude, ten-thousand images is a milestone that can still be rightly regarded as important by many photographers. However, considering the changes in photography since the statement was made, it is a fair warning that this amount should perhaps be adjusted by a degree of inflation.
As photographers, understanding the lengths to which master photographers such as Cartier-Bresson physically produced ten thousand images as a precursor to their more widely renowned work opens the door to a more pragmatic appreciation of photographic work.
It invests such examples of photographic work with an underlying expertise that qualifies the depth of appraisal that is afforded to such works of photographic mastery, especially in lieu of a poorly based public scepticism of the medium.
In Cartier-Bresson’s case this not only affords his maxim much more poignancy today but also allows the amateur photographer a glimpse into the life-long colossal undertaking behind his ground-breaking body of work.
All images by Henri-Cartier Bresson
Originally written in 2011 on my old blog.