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Six steps in pursuing the art of photography

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

I wasn't always a photographer. First, I wanted to be an artist or a writer. Thanks to my love for the art of comic books. When I turned 15, my parents bought me my first 35mm film camera. I had just taken a photography class in high school and was probably going on how cool it was. Still, it was my first camera, my first love, and I've never forgotten it.

Oh, I was happy with the gift, to be sure, but I didn't take to it as much first. It wasn't love at first sight between me and photography. After all, I was going to be a comic book artist-writer. However, the camera did do something for me back then that none of my other interests did. It brought me out of my shell, and I found I could talk to girls.

Still, I was going to be a comic book artist, but I also kept learning about photography. The photography aspect was going to be part of my wheelhouse of skills. I made scores of paintings, drawings, and other types of media. I'd even picked up a photography job or two. Along the way, I discovered Edward Weston, Henri Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Jerry Uelsmann, Cindy Sherman, the Starns. I found that photography could be a more powerful medium to create with.

Now 35 years later, photography is what I do. Also, I have accumulated enough experience and information to pass on my knowledge.

However, I still had yet to create a comic book. I have got an idea for a book, but it has yet to be made... One day...

Along the way, I read a comic book about comic books, Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. I still re-read that book every so often. I even keep a copy of it at work. Not because it reminds me that I have a comic book to make. I keep it with me to remind myself about what it means to be an artist.

If you ever wanted to become an artist or pursue this career, you should read this book. Pay attention to Chapter 7. In Chapter 7, he described the six steps in pursuing art. His encapsulation of those steps is the template I use to create and teach photography.

Here is his breakdown of those steps.

  1. Idea/Purpose

  2. Form

  3. Idiom

  4. Structure

  5. Craft

  6. Surface

1. Idea/Purpose

"The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purpose of the work... the work's content." - Scott McCloud Understanding Comics, Chapter 7, page 170.

In photography, the meaning of the work as a whole is very little. Some common ones are good vs. evil. Is it morally wrong to capture the image - ex. Journalism vs. Paparazzi? Social media also dilutes the content of art photography. The phrase "everyone is a photographer" comes to mind. With the use of algorithms and AI, the art of choice is reduced to a simple click. The idea and purpose of capturing images are reduced to, "Because I can."

The typical question I get,

"Hey, Dono! You got a fancy camera. Can you take some snaps of me?"

To which I reply, "errr... sure, why not."

However, I found myself stuck in this particular loop for a long time. This loop also has a habit of popping back up a lot.

2. Form

"The form it will take... Will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A potholder? A comic book?" Scott McCloud Understanding Comics, Chapter 7, page 170.

With form, photography, one could say, only has one way: a flat two-dimensional pictograph. There are many forms of photography. There is, of course, film photography that is still in play today. However, photography doesn't require film or even a camera sensor. Photography has been around for thousands of years in the form of Pinhole Imagery.

Pinhole Imagery is when an image of a scene is projected through a small hole from the opposite side. The image is reversed and inverted (left to right and upside down) on a surface opposite the opening. This is a naturally occurring optical event. Some theories suggest that even in pre-historic times in tents and caves, pinhole images inspired "cave" paintings.

It certainly was available to them. I was a toddler when I first noticed the effect on my parent's house living room wall in Michigan. A beam of light from a curtain. Parted opened just so, showing the traffic from across the road. It appeared magical to me.

However, I digress... The form that photography takes with current technology is still varied with camera phones, interchangeable lens systems, compact cameras, and yes, even film cameras. Each of these forms has its own identity.

3. Idiom

"The "school" of art, the vocabulary of styles or gestures or subject matter. The genre that the work belongs too... maybe a genre of its own." - Scott McCloud Understanding Comics, Chapter 7, page 170.

In photography, the vocabulary has already been laid out from previous generations of photographers. However, it is modified by technology as new applications are created. Still, the medium's awareness that it is only light that's been captured and recorded. You only needed specific tools and skills. You discover that those tools can be bought, and the skills can be learned.

When I took my first photography job, it was in one of those portrait studios. It was simple as, here are the settings, use the light meter and get the kid to smile. When I took my first freelance job, a wedding, it was the same thing.

I quickly got bored with this particular step. I didn't think there was anything else to learn. In hindsight, I was just bored back then with the simple mechanics of operating the tool. I began to explore other subject matters, like drawing and painting. Besides, I still had dreams of being of producing a comic book.

However, decades later, I am still learning the idiom. Technology has also been a factor in keeping up with the craft and keeps inspiring me.

4. Structure

"Putting it all together... What to include, what to leave out... How to arrange. How to compose the work. - Scott McCloud Understanding Comics, Chapter 7, page 170.

The structure of photography is taking all you've learned and applied in creating the whole picture. Photography is about problem-solving. It starts with the photographer asking the question, "How do I photograph something?" The photographer struggles with the idea and applies their knowledge. Mostly they meet with failure, but they also find some success. It gives them hope to apply what they've learned in the next part of the problem of "How?"

Some turn to professionals or other guides along the way, seeking an immediate answer. Most struggling photographers ask the wrong questions of their mentors. "What setting did you use?" When their mentor tells them, they immediately take it, as a rule, set in stone. Underlined twice and marked with a very bright highlighter. If you fall into that trap, you'll end up copying their idea.

This was also me for a very long time. The question I should have asked is, "How do you come up with that?" When I started asking those questions, they often said, "Well, I was playing around one night..."

I've learned more by just playing around. By playing around, I began to look beneath the settings and the tools and create images that resonate with me.

5. Craft

"Constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention, problem-solving, getting the job done." - Scott McCloud Understanding Comics, Chapter 7, page 171.

How you construct the image in photography is a craft. You apply your skills, knowledge, invention, and problem solving to get the "job" done.

Look, it is essential to study and know the basics, and that will get you a job. And you will get a job in photography if you keep at it. There are plenty of jobs out there that require a photographer. It's not glamourous, they're demanding, and they need a commitment of your time. You might not get rich at, but you will probably do alright.

That's my main job these days in photography. I teach photography, and I enjoy it immensely. It has brought me close to those who have inspired me, and I hope for inspiration in others.

6. Surface

"Production values, finishing... The aspects most apparent on first exposure to the work." - Scott McCloud Understanding Comics, Chapter 7, page 171.

Scott describes this as the first aspect the audience perceives. When I was starting, my work looked like other photographers. I was making clean and crisp lines. Images were sharp. I would capture photos of my friends, and they loved them.

I traveled to Italy for the first time back in 1993. It was amazing. The photos I took were subline. I mage some errors, sure, but they were fantastic errors. I learned so much. I lived in Florence for about six months, and I thought it doesn't get better than this.

Cut to 1995, and I'm working at a photo store. One of my jobs there, of course, was processing film. And then I found out that most of the photos I took were just copies of tourist stuff. When I look at them now, I see that all I was doing was looking at the surface. There were only one or two photos out of the 30 rolls I shot that had any sense of the experience.

It's not that they were terrible photos. I still have fond memories of when I was there. However, It didn't matter how artfully I placed the images in a book or framed them. I could have easily cut out some art and tourist books and used those photos just as well. They didn't reflect the quality of the experience.

Those are Scott's six steps, as interpreted by me.

  1. Idea/Purpose

  2. Form

  3. Idiom

  4. Structure

  5. Craft

  6. Surface

These six steps shouldn't be thought of as linear. I've gone up and down these steps before. I've reached places in my work where I should be satisfied. But I'm not. I feel like I am missing something important. Something else I should be doing, and I ask myself questions.

  • Why am I doing this?

  • Do I have something to say about life and art?

  • Do I have anything to say at all?

  • And will anyone listen?

If you've made it this far, you might be asking the same thing about me.

I've fallen in and out of love with photography several times. I even didn't own a camera for two years! Still, photography is my first love, even if I didn't realize it 35 years ago. Keep in mind, the longer you keep making images, the more you create, the more you will go up and down these steps.

There are plenty of photographers out there who are "insta-famous." Their images are cool to look at, and they are pretty too. Some even know their craft and have learned enough of the form, idiom, and structure. Still, they seem a bit hollow.

You know what? There is nothing wrong with that. Photography is a very powerful medium that's thousands of years old. It's going to be reinterpreted again in new ways.

Of course, not everyone takes this long path to make things. One day my two-year-old son gave me some acorns and told me they were a treasure. He said I had to keep them. He made a little box and put them inside. I still have it. He's 16 now and forgotten all about it... (sigh) —modest goals for creativity with no detours.

I still have something to say about my photography. I think we all have something to say to the world. Even if it does get lost in the noise, someone will hear it.

My goals for my pursuit of the art of photography have changed. They have changed before, and they will change again. When I have an idea or purpose, the camera becomes my tool. When I start with a form... well, the skies the limit.

Maybe, I'll make a comic book with photos...



September 4, 2020

Venice, FL


Check out The History of Photography - JAMES IBITOYE.

Also, pick up a copy of Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud 1993


Some Early Foto Dono - The good, the bad, and the ugly...

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