The photograph made

A rough draft

I came across this video on PetaPixel, who grabbed it from the pages of The Atlantic. Those who love photographs and monomaniac quests will find it highly entertaining. Sam Abell gives a few details about his mission to find and then make a particular photograph. I am posting it both to share it and a thought or two about the idea of a photograph "made" versus a photograph "taken."

Missing the point

I don't pretend to know who first phrased the made versus taken distinction, though I know there is at least one famous quote attributed to Ansel Adams ("You don't take a photograph, you make it." ) on the subject. Now whether our modern parlance of make v. take comes from Ansel or from another photographer is, ultimately, immaterial. What matters is what we take from that idea. What I thought was worth considering beyond the video was the instantaneous flame war that erupted in the comments on PetaPixel. The first comment (by "Joe") reads:

'This is a matter of semantics. I've found that people who say "making" a photo rather than "taking" are just being pretentious... Kind of like dropping into conversation that you own a Leica.'

Now maybe you watched the video and you thought Sam Abell was a little pretentious. Maybe you didn't. Maybe you thought unfair his not-so-subtle dig at the trajectory of cost-cutting journalism, photojournalism and National Geographic has taken since the story he tells took place. Maybe you thought it was spot-on. Regardless, if all "Joe" took away from the video or the larger discussion was that (from a later, follow-up comment to his original trolling remark):

'photographers who walk around saying they "made" a photo are generally just begging for lay people to ask "Wait... Made? Don't you TAKE photos?" so then they can educate the lay people and hopefully get them as impressed with the photographer as the photographer is with themselves,'

then he has completely and totally missed the point. The point isn't whether you think Abell is trying to impress you, or if Abell is a narcissist. The point isn't whether you liked how the video was shot or whether you liked how Abell narrated his story or whether you think shooting for 18-months and 25,000 frames (on film!!) for an eight image photo spread was a success. In the end the point is the image. Watch the video and pause on the frames he describes as "unworthy of Russell." They. are. awesome images. Now look at the final image with the bison heads in the snow and the live bison on the horizon; that image is undeniably better. Vision is seeing the potential for that photograph in the face of extant, excellent images. Personally, I would have been absolutely thrilled having made those first few photographs.

The result of vision

Abell distinguishes "made" photographs, the result of a process, from "taken" photographs as the result of an instantaneous and unprepared reaction. In some ways, this goes too far and not far enough. I just said "In the end the point is the image." No National Geographic reader, no consumer of photography cares if the image took one frame or one million frames to get right, and my guess is that Abell wasn't entirely concerned with how many images it took before he had what he wanted.

But here is the point of my whole diatribe and the reason I dragged "Joe" into this discussion. "Made" photographs are the result of vision and taken photographs are the result of a still-hearted, reactionary press of the shutter. Record shots are taken. Snapshots are often taken. The visual world is a complicated, confusing and disorganized place. Take a camera, hold the shutter down and point it without your eye in the viewfinder and you'll see how few vantage points render an idea when confined by a frame. When you see a great photograph it is because the photographer did something, made at least one critical decision that turned the image from a snapshot into a story. Now, to square the circle, Abell's "process" can be thought of as vision and we have the same definition, but not all photographers work from process alone and not all made photographs can work in a time frame for some people's process. Some photographs can be made as quickly as they can be taken as the result of a simple decision based on good vision.

Why bother to make the distinction?

If no audience member sees the process, why make the distinction? Does it only serve to make a photographer sound pretentious or impressive? In short, no. The reason I believe the distinction worth making is because it is a critical learning tool for photographers new and old. Photographs tell stories when they are composed and executed to do so. Abell's father's advice in the video says, "Compose your photograph and wait" (or something close to that). Perhaps you'll allow me to paraphrase that to "Compose your photograph and evaluate, 'Am I telling the story?,' 'Am I finished?'" Ultimately, "Joe," the reason it is worth making the distinction is that it reminds a photographer that getting a camera in front of something beautiful or meaningful or terrible isn't enough. Activating the shutter and publishing the photograph isn't enough to make an image great. One needs to get himself or herself to the right place, at the right time and "make" the image with his or her vision. Anything short of that decision and execution process is an image taken and, in the long run, after all is said and done, the "made" image will be better. Period.