On Making Pictures

by Rob Campbell

I don’t think there’s anything new to be said about the relative merits of film and digital capture, and apart from pointing out the differences in highlight roll-off and stuff like that, I do believe most of us would experience difficulty telling the results apart, equally competent photographers a given.

Instead, I think I’d like to talk about making pictures, and the differences that mental approach will inevitably bring to the exercise.

The greatest question regarding approach starts, obviously, right at the beginning, with the word why? Why make a particular photograph?

I suppose the answer to that will vary from person to person, but in my own case, photography has lived two distinct periods: the professional one which really began before I owned a reasonable camera or even had a business, because for the life of me I can hardly recall a time I didn’t want to do it every day. I just had this thing about it in my head. The other part, the later manifestation of the bug, happened post-retirement when I became an amateur. And the two experiences are totally different. If anything, the amateur status was infinitely more difficult to handle because, for the first time, I was faced with the complex character of motivation which, when left to be subjective and divorced from economic survival, has a really tough time forcing through enough energy to get up and do. Some of you familiar with the work of the famous Black Trinity of Bailey, Donovan and Duffy may remember the difficult Donovan quotation which I paraphrase as best I can: “The problem for the amateur is finding a reason to make a photograph.” Think about that for a moment and you’ll see what he meant.

However, once one gets over that initial hurdle (for me it happened after the death of my wife when photography really came back into my life as a form of instinctive therapy that allowed me to escape from the endless, destructive-because-useless churning of emotions built around loss), new departures become possible.

Instead of the easy route of the assignment which brought with it not only the motivation, direction and pleasure of the shoot itself, but also the added sense of validation by virtue of the assignment coming one’s way, I now discovered another buzz: the kick found in taking what life offers in the most mundane situations, looking at it, and seeking out ways of making snippets of it distinct and, with luck, interesting.

One can do it anywhere: walk down a city or village street and look into shop windows. Immediately you see two worlds. Put them together, wait until people move into places where you’d like them and make the exposure; wait until there are no people. Go out in the rain and gaze at the puddles. They become mirrors, and show you a different topsy-turvy world of reality. Photograph it; you always knew it was there, but shooting it and working on it makes it something quite else. Give it a title and you add yet another layer of meaning – or just fun, that maybe only you understands. But that’s cool too.

Some folks, with more nerve than I, go out and photograph people they don’t know and manage to make great images that carry massive doses of ambiguity, humour or even sadness. Street’s a wonderfully broad canvas: think Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas, Robert Frank, HC-B and so on and on, and they are all quite differently doing the same thing: catching the magic of the real world without having to create new bits for it. Now that’s a talent of both vision and reflexes!

I have no doubt that the exercise is much easier to pull off in cities like NY or Paris than in a small town somewhere in the sticks, if only because in the city you do become pretty invisible and people are already tuned in to studiously ignoring everybody around them and avoiding any eye contact whilst, at the same time, being on guard. Where every tourist has some recording device in front of his face, only your own conscience makes you stand out as something else. The rural town or village is a different thing: everybody knows everybody else, and whatever you do, you get noticed, even if you’re doing absolutely nothing more than breathing. And you can be sure you’d also be noticed if you’d stopped breathing. You can’t bet on that in a city.

Maybe the best one can do is play with reality just a little bit. If you don`t play with it, then I hardly see a reason to make the photograph at all: you contributed nothing and life would have existed in exactly the same way with or without you. Make the difference. But most of all, make it for yourself, and not for anybody else. Everybody else already wants too much from you. And hey, don’t waste money on crazy equipment: it can be done just as well on a shoestring, and if you really, really need that exotic lens, get it second-hand, because after the first flush of pleasure it brings, you’ll find yourself right back where you began, wondering about what to shoot and confusing that thought with what you need to buy in order to shoot the next variation of the same old things.

For anyone seeking inspiration, I’d suggest simply looking at a lot of photographer websites and finding something that really appeals, and then going out and shooting your own version of it. It’s not plagiarism, because you won’t ever find the same circumstances, your vision will be quite different, but you will still be able to make use of the sense of genre. Grasp the genre for you, and you are already on your way.

© Rob Campbell, 2017

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9 thoughts on “On Making Pictures

  1. Leicaphila Post author

    Yes, great advice from Mr. Campbell, who I’m grateful shared his thoughts. Good, meaningful photographs are usually the result of pushing past preconceived ideas about what “should” be photographed. The photos used to illustrate his piece are excellent examples of finding interest in mundane, everyday things.

    In one of my past lives I was a gallery represented painter, doing abstract work that seems simple but really taught me about form and content and the relationship between the two. Mr. Campbell would probably be a good painter as he has a really keen formal sense.

  2. Rob Campbell

    Thanks for the kind remarks – on the other hand, though, I can’t even sing or play a musical instrument… well, not on or with either hand, come to think of it.



  3. Walter Glover

    For many, photography is a pathological need. That seems to be very much the case with Rob Campbell. How fortunate that he charts the variations in his life with photographing and chooses to share them with us.

    While I can see some merit in the utterance concerning motivation from Terence Donovan, I feel it somehow misses the point that for many craft is more than just a means to an end: it can be, and is (as I suggested), a pathological need all the same sense of purpose as eating and procreation.

    It is a joy to be afforded the opportunity to glimpse into the work and mind of a Master.


  4. Rob Campbell

    Thanks for you comments, Walter.

    Well, being a master is something I know very little about; however I do agree with your idea that there’s pathology behind it all. There has to be: why else would anyone, otherwise of sound mind, choose a career, a way of life where one’s value and success is totally dependent on nothing more than the opinion of many another person who, usually, knows almost zero about the craft one is trying to follow?

    However, I think its power is greater than the desire to procreate: It isn’t unusual for procreation to follow photography, much as one thing naturally follows another (as did cups of tea follow Jeanloup Sieff’s photographic adventures), and many are in it just to try and get to that point. But there’s this to consider, too: with age, nature isn’t particularly averse to switching off your desires below the belt but she doesn’t ever seem to switch of the craving to make pictures. You need only think of those ‘oldies’ who died in the photographic saddle like Avedon, Sieff, Parkinson, Donovan and, curiously just before death, of Brian Duffy, who found himself fondling a camera again after an absence of several decades. True love? True mistress? Guess it’s easier to try take a camera with you when you go than several zillion terracotta warriors, though.


  5. Rob Campbell

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the comment – wish I could inspire myself a little bit more too, but the positive me has been having a difficult fight with the other me over an Internet magazine thing I’m working on; some days it seems perfectly possible and well-considered, and on yet other days, I await the insistent knock on the door from the guys in white coats!

    It must be an age thing: when I hung out my shingle as a photographer I never had a doubt because I simply didn’t go there in my head. Whether the many years since then have taught me something about life, or whether my current state of mind is just slightly in shock hearing, on France24 tv, that in the world of graphic arts, the late thirties are considered time for retirement…

    But what else is there to do? If I’m still alive and want to make pictures, not making them becomes my fault; can’t allow that!

    Ciao –


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