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Thoughts of First & Second Draft Photography

Photography purists are the strangest creatures. I’m occasionally confronted by some-or-other local purist (film & digital) telling me with disdain that their photographs are completed in camera and anything less is surely not real photography. While I admire their heart-felt belief, I do have a few brief tidbits to throw into that heady paradigm. I’d suggest the first draft of photography is the exposure – everything after that is a second draft or later.

The One Photography to Rule them All

Start with the question – what type of photography are we talking about? Photojournalism? Fine art? The street style, lomo, still life, portraiture, surreal, commercial? Digital? Film? Wet plate? Landscape? War? Documentary?

That’s a short list from a broad range of different photographies; so I’m cautious about the idea of an immutable set of photography rules. And if we’re to look for truth in all things then who’s truth is that exactly? My truth or your truth? When it comes to recording that truth, what we choose to include or exclude from photographs will be significant. To include the elephant? To exclude the circus tent?

And I like that W. Eugene Smith quote – “I didn’t write the rules, why should I follow them?” In that sense, forgive me if I take your rules and fly them from a flag pole with a pair of dirty knickers. Woo-hoo, rules!

The Crop – Picasso Never Looked Better

Some great examples of the crop come from master photographers. Off-hand, looking for great examples of a second draft, I’d point straight at Arnold Newman.

The iconic Pablo Picasso by Arnold Newman in 1954 cropped over 60% of the first take photograph and rotated it clockwise. Igor Stravinsky by Arnold Newman in 1946 is also a significant crop to achieve the final composition where Stravinsky sits in bottom left and his piano represents a musical note (in a word – brilliance). The iconic Che Guevara photograph made in 1960 by Alberto Korda. Even Cartier-Bresson’s famous Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932 was a crop out of necessity. Then you have the iconic Napalm Girl by Phan Thi Kim PhĂșc made in the Vietnam War and the Eddie Adam’s shot of an Execution in Saigon. Even the man in front of the tank photograph from Tiananmen Square made by Jeff Widener in 1989 was a very serious crop of an exposure made 400 metres away.

Crop can and does have a place in photography. It draws a subject closer. Re-adjusts composition to frame a story. Crop corrects horizon lines. It’s a tool in the arsenal, not a photography panacea. But it is often a valid photographers’ choice.

Photo Manipulation – Ansel Adams & Lillian Bassman

Two equally iconic master photographers offer up examples of photo-manipulation. Ansel Adams‘ entire process was about pre-visualisation of the image, making the correct exposure and then creating the final photograph in the darkroom using his zone system. Comparisons of original photographs shot by Adams versus the photographs he produced for public consumption from those negatives offer insight into the dramatic power of the photographer’s vision.

“The film is the score; The print is the performance.” – Ansel Adams

A second example I’d draw you to is the work of fashion photographer Lillian Bassman where the boundaries of the genre were pushed throughout her extensive career. Lillian Bassman’s hallmark is a print where whites have been blown out to create something more than the original photograph.

We could add into that list master photographers like Bill Brandt or W. Eugene Smith – their style was very much entwined in the darkroom process. Smith, for example, gained that special high contrast using potassium ferricyanide. And I recall an interview where Brandt declared that none of his earlier prints looked anything like their original exposures.

The Digital Camera & the Darkroom

Manipulation is the norm rather than an exception in photography. If you shoot film and print in a darkroom – your process, chemicals and vision affect the final print.

The negative has never offered us the one and only truth. Any illusion that photography’s past was truth-pure is also a shimmer across the horizon of a hot day. Again, what version of truth? And who is the judge?

And if you shoot digital photography the camera software is making interpolations between individual pixels and further manipulating photographs before you even drag them into Photoshop for editing. And I shouldn’t have to add… RAW is interpolated so please don’t push a shit barrow of angst down my e-driveway. It’s just the reality of sampling light to create photographs inside digital cameras.

And not being a purist I see all of this phenomenal variety as a good thing. Because if every genre, every photographer and every viewer expected a single truth then we would have seen and done it all by now. The fantastic aspect of photography is we haven’t… we’re still discovering photography and reinventing it around our individual versions of its contemporary merit.

Conclusion

So I don’t quite understand the purist who insists on the photographer presenting only a first draft. Or the best of 100 first drafts, for that matter. Writers aren’t expected to publish their first draft. Nor designers. Architects. Or even artists.

And, if it floats your boat, I think it’s perfectly fine to throw your own first drafts onto the table – it’s the photographer’s choice.

There is certainly a lot of skill to be fostered in getting photography correct in camera. I’m not knocking that expertise for one moment and they are skills I’m honing with a high degree of aspiration. But more often than not the people who raise this first draft ideal with me have simply read it on the Internet – real photographers do [insert ideal]. The Internet offers the same push towards consensus that comes with any group dynamic; one symptom of that consensus is the acolyte propounding dogmatic truth.

Real photographers ship. It’s simple. Real photographers… dare I suggest… make photographs. Beyond that we’re individuals on the long path to self-awareness and we’ll leave both process and the final print to your discretion. That, I humbly suggest, defines a real photographer.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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