The Virtue of the Frame

In a guest post, Jack McLain shares with us his thoughts on the virtue of the frame and what photography means to him. This is the first in a three part series. So settle in for a long and thought provoking read.

Part I

“The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.”— Eve Arnold
I started work on my Masters of Photography this year, and one of the questions that consistently arises is: “What is photography?”

It appears to be a simple question, so it should have a simple answer. But it doesn’t. All one has to do is a quick internet search and you’ll find a variety of ideas, philosophies, practices and opinions seeking to answer the question. (Usually in a way that benefits the person responding to the question.)

Is it art or science? Yes. Is it a lower form of art? Depends on who you ask, and what moment of history you ask it. Is modifying or editing a photograph acceptable and is it still photography if you do? Well, it’s been done in every era of photography, and caused controversy at every turn, so, I don’t know?
The more I delve in to questions surrounding ideas and theories surrounding photography, the more clear it becomes that ‘photography’ is not a monolithic or monosyllabic creature. It is complex and multifaceted. Any time you come close to believing you have it pinned down, something or someone will challenge your beliefs and practices.
But that’s a good thing. What I’m increasingly adopting as my position is that photography is a wildly subjective field and we may not ever be able to come to a definitive understanding of what it is.

Philosophy

The other thing I’ve had to do in my program is read a great deal of philosophy, which I did years ago and it’s proven helpful in applying to photography. While we may never be able to achieve a once-and-for-all definition of photography, maybe we don’t need to. Maybe we can turn it around and reflect on who we are and what we’re trying to do with our photography. Maybe we can look at applying virtue ethics to our photography. Virtue ethics has its foundations in ancient Greek philosophy, which can be a bit of a slog to get through.
A useful slog for the purposes of understanding the underpinnings of Western thought, but it can still be dry and difficult, even if the dividends are worth it.

Basically, virtue ethics as it has evolved since the Greeks suggests that becoming a good person is a lifelong project; it’s never just one decision we make and it’s done. Every person is a work in progress, all the time. We become a good person by doing good things, exercising virtues, striving to be just a little better today than we were yesterday.
Think about it like athletic training; the more weight I lift, the more I build the muscle, the stronger I become, the more weight I’m able to lift. When I apply these principles to my photography, I find that it helps me become better a photographer.

There are three fundamental questions to virtue ethics:

1) Who am I?

2) Who is that I desire to become?

3) How do I become that person?

If we adapt these questions to photography, we might ask:

1) Who am I as a photographer?

2) What do I want my photographs to be?

3) How do I create those kinds of images?

This might be more helpful than trying to define our shared craft of photography since it focuses on something I do know, myself.

I’ll use myself as an example here, but I’m by no means the standard. I enjoy some types and forms of photography more than others and I take some kinds of pictures better than others, it’s up to you to look at your practice and see how you can apply these questions to yourself. And if some of the things I suggest don’t work for you, find another way of challenging yourself that makes sense to you and follow that path.

Background

First off, some background on my own photographic practice. I started off being fascinated by photographs as a kid and took my first photography course in high school, which included darkroom work. We learned the fundamentals on the trusty, rock-solid Pentax K1000, a camera which, because of its simplicity and durability was often the workhorse for learners and schools.
I have a K1000 a dear friend gifted to me a few years back. It chugs along with craftsman like dependability. As an undergraduate, I studied radio and television production in the 80s, which meant learning fundamentals of editing and video work.
After a long pause, I began to shoot photographs again when the cameras on phones started to improve, beginning with the Nokia N95. Over the interceding years, I’ve shot primarily with iPhones,migrating to Sony digital cameras and digital editing packages, I’ve flown drones and used GoPros for shooting from different environments and perspectives.
Migrating back to film, I’ve shot with a Leica M6 and Mamiya 645, and this year I’ve taken a step further back in history, shooting wet plate collodion tintypes on an Intrepid 4×5 large format camera using period brass lenses during COVID-19. For all of these different experiences, I’m not certain I’m any closer to answering the fundamental question of what photography is, but I think it’s helped me refine my understanding of who I am behind the camera.

Understand

If I’m going to understand myself as a photographer, I have to be honest about what I can do well and what my limitations are. Honesty with ourselves is fundamental.
I see myself primarily as a landscape, adventure and travel photographer, this brings together my love of the natural world and wild spaces with my desire to create and tell stories. As a photographer, I sometimes shoot the occasional street photograph, but usually I’m out in the open spaces somewhere shooting a landscape, or in a remote corner of the world shooting something people don’t usually get to see.
But when you strip away the equipment, the genres, the editing software, what are the fundamentals that guide me as a photographer? I think there are two things that serve as guideposts for me: Beauty and Story.
Beauty isn’t limited to the natural world, it’s on the street, it’s in a blurry, abstract image by Cartier-Bresson, it’s in the way that people like Joe Greer and Jay Maisel search for and play with light and colour. I love beauty, because I believe that we’re surrounded by it, but we usually miss it. A great photograph helps us see the beauty hidden in plain sight in our everyday ordinary.

Story

For me, Story is another star in the sky that guides my photography. Personally, I want to do work that makes people aware of the need for conservation and preservation of the natural world, and I want them to act in a way that is consistent with taking care of our home, our planet.
I believe that to really change people’s behaviour, you must change their mind. To change their minds, you first need to change their hearts. To begin to change hearts begins with a good story.
So before I push the shutter release, as I’m raising the camera to my eye to focus, sometimes even before that, I ask myself ‘what’s the story you’re trying to tell here?’ This helps me look more deeply, more intently, into the world I’m moving through. When I do this, I begin to see differently, to search for that something that separates one ordinary moment from the next which is extraordinary. Also, no matter how I’m editing photographs, I’ve never found a way to increase the amount of story in a frame if it’s not there when I capture it. No software, no amount of dodging and burning can add this if its not present when I press the shutter.

Experiment

What are the photographic virtues you value and practice and would like to see more of in your work? As an experiment, try this: Gather a bunch of your favourite photos you’ve created and lay them out together. Whether you do this physically or digitally, spread them out together. When you observe them in this way, what are the non- tangibles that link your work together? Is your favourite work all pictures of dogs? What is it that attracts you to dogs? Their personalities? How they mirror their owners? What is the value, the virtue that you see coming to the surface of your images?
What is it about the the feel of the grain that attracts you? The sense of time and place or timelessness and anywhere-ness? Look at your work and look for the common threads that are not visibly present in the frame. What links you to your pictures regardless of subject or genre?
This is a clue to what resides within you as a photographer, what you are trying to give expression to in creating photographs. Know these and hold on to them.

Jack McLain

Thanks to Jack for sharing this piece. Parts two and three will be coming soon. Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

JCH