When is the last time you heard someone ask a painter what kind of brush they use, or where they get their canvas stretched? Have you ever wondered if an Illustrator uses an HB or 9B graphite pencil? Why then is it that the first question someone usually asks a photographer is what kind of camera they shoot with? This is something I catch myself doing all the time. I find a photographer I admire and instantly want to know what gear they are using, like it’s the key to their success. This is most certainly not the case.
There are two famous photographers both born in 1908 that shared a similar outlook on the relationship of the camera to the photographer. This mantra is not specific to these two, but they put it far more eloquently than I ever could.
"Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera." - Yousuf Karsh
“To photograph: it is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.” ― Henri Cartier-Bresson
It is no coincidence that both of these photographers specifically called out the importance of the heart and the mind or eye. The medium of photography has been elevated by men and women whose strongest connection is to the human condition; artists who have cultivated their hearts and expressed it through a lens. This connection, combined with a unique way of seeing, is what creates a memorable photographer and an impactful photograph not the camera.
The heart and eye are the true distinguishers in the world of photography. Without these two we would be deprived of any meaningful images; so how do they contribute to an image?
A heart's desire is what leads a photographer to a location or subject. It is with his heart that William Henry Jackson photographed what had not yet become Yellowstone National Park; creating images that were instrumental in persuading Congress to create our first national park. It was the brave heart that lead Robert Capa to the Spanish civil war, solidifying him as one of the greatest war photographers ever. Put simply the heart is the curator for every photographer; if it's followed the work will come.
If the heart leads to subjects then the mind and eye are the way in which a photographer expresses their vision and creativity. Two people can enter the same room and come away with completely different images. The only factor in the process is the way in which the photographers interpret their environment and recognize the possibilities. This recognition is the true artistry in photography, it’s the equivalent of a painter laying the brush strokes. It needs to be purposeful, but also carried out on a subconscious level. Some people are inherently gifted with the ability to see the world in new ways, they simply point their lens and capture something special. For others this skill is in constant need of sharpening and refining before they can produce something impactful. Seeing is ultimately what will set photographers apart and elevate certain individuals to higher levels of notoriety.
While the heart and vision are the two most important aspects in a photographer's arsenal, the camera is the tool they use to carry out their vision. However, a camera only matters in so much as it performs to photographers’ standards and can completely disappear from their thought. The second a photographer has to worry about their camera they’ve already lost. For every photographer, the ultimate goal should be to reach the point in which they no longer have to think about all the mechanical functions of the camera. Rather, their focus is aimed at what is framed through the lens. Often times certain situations call for specific gear and knowledge, but ultimately it’s about how that gear is used to carry out a vision that matters.
I would love it see more articles and videos framed around these other aspects of photography. Gear is important, but shouldn't carry the conversations on photography. My hope is that the next time you see a photo you like or chat with your friend who is a photographer, you think about this and can ask them about something other than their camera. Ask them about what's in the frame and why the took the picture, not what they used to take it.