Congratulations. You have embarked upon a course which will change the way you look at life. Photography is magical. When it was first invented, it was quite literally magical. There had never before been a way of freezing a moment in time, of depicting in exact detail scenes from everyday life, of preserving someone’s appearance. Previously we had to rely on the work of artists and writers if we wanted to imagine what something or someone actually looked like. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that he would gladly trade all the painted versions of Jesus for just one photograph of Him.
When Niepce and Daguerre and Fox-Talbot and all the other tinkerers and alchemists and visionaries of the Victorian age conjured images out of light and silver it was magic. It was as if people had at last discovered how to look at the world and how the world looked at them. A mirror reflection was, and still is, useful, but it is not a true one. In a mirror, everything is inverted – right is left and vice versa – so it can only be a distorted view of reality. Looking at life through a camera lens was, for the first time ever, exactly like looking at life through someone else’s eyes. Except that it’s not.
When you point a camera at a subject and click the shutter, you are doing so much more than merely recording. You are being selective and playing around with the truth. You have a rectangular space to fill (the viewfinder) and that is quite a responsibility. What do you choose to include in it? And more importantly, what do you choose to leave out? This frame is possibly the most important aspect of all in photography. How we compose the elements within it is a highly personal act and when it is done well it is something that can tell the viewer something about your experience of the world. When it is done masterfully it can touch the viewer because it resonates with their view of the world.
In other words, with a camera in your hands you are powerful. You have the means to capture a likeness or completely alter it to your own ends. You have the power to change the way events are perceived, perhaps change the way they are remembered. In this way you can change history. You can inspire hope, condemn injustice and move people to tears or decisive action. If you think this is a bit over-the-top, think about the major historical turning points of the 20th and early 21st centuries and how we recollect them through photographs. The futility of war, the suffering of innocents, coronations and depositions, raising flags, resisting oppression, ecological disasters, technological advance, terrorist atrocities, the tenacity of the human spirit, triumph and tragedy…. all this and more can be visualised succinctly in a whole series of iconic images which are burnt into the psyche of a generation. As you read this list, even if you are too young to have lived through most of these events, at least one famous photo will have leapt into your subconscious (unless you have been living in a hole in the ground for the past 100 years). How else do we remember Vietnam, Iwo Jima, Darfur, the Berlin Wall, the Moon landings, Nelson Mandela, Tianenmen Square, 9/11 or Obama’s election without recalling those amazing photos? And how much do those amazing photos influence our memories of those hugely significant events?
On this course we will learn the mechanics of taking a photograph, but we also look at photography from an artistic and historical viewpoint. Today we take photography for granted. It is literally everywhere. Anyone with a mobile phone can take a photo. Modern cameras are virtually idiot-proof. The novelty is gone, but the magic remains because a great photograph still has the power to affect us, to amuse us, to outrage us or to comfort us. Having a ‘good eye’ is something that we are all capable of, because our perception of the world around us is determined so powerfully by our own experiences in early life. We can encourage you to develop your ‘eye’ – your own personal photographic radar – by grasping what it is that goes towards making a ‘good’ photo. Expensive cameras are not always necessary; some of the most successful images ever were snapped using cheap equipment. Understanding the concepts of planning, framing, cropping, lighting, composition and point of view, as well as appreciating the importance of luck and timing, is fundamental if you want to take better photographs. And to do that you need to be able to look back at the masters of photography and ask why their images work. Hopefully you will enjoy learning and enjoy asking.