Five Photography Questions and Answers

I thought the following Q&A that I did for Glasgow photography student James Murray may be of interest to readers of this blog.  Please let me know if you have any additional thoughts or opinions on the questions or answers.


James Murray wrote:
Dear Mr Culp

I am a student photographer from Glasgow Scotland, currently undertaking a project in ‘Urban Photography’, my studies apply to still photography and I have been most impressed with the style and diversity in your imaging, none more so than your collection of urbanscapes.

I am also in no doubts that as a successful director you will be an extremely busy person, but I was wondering/hoping? That you may find the time to answer some questions as part of an interview for my research book. This doesn’t need to be an audible recording, just a print of your responses that I can copy from an email from yourself.

James Murray

1 – When did you first take up photography and what was it that attracted you to it?

I received a Kodak Ektralite 10 instamatic for Christmas when I was ten but didn’t become serious about it until taking film and photography at Ryerson University in Toronto years later.  I became committed to art photography in the late 90’s and have been exhibiting since 2001.

There are two main aspects of photography that I was first, and continue to be, attracted to.  The first is concerned with the initial capture of the image – the discovery of something new and evocative through exploration.  I believe that there is an explorer instinct inside all of us.  It is a forward leaning survival instinct that speaks to that part of us concerned with progress, hope and possibility.

The second is in the processing of the capture to create an artifact that is my reinterpretation of the subject based on my personal history, emotions, experiences, and sensibilities.  Art is concerned with personal expression, not creating a perfect copy of the world.  Therefore art photography should speak of and for the photographer. The personal discoveries made through this process inform my thoughts and feelings about the subject and therefore help me work though the bigger issues associated with it.  Ultimately, I hope that if my photographs can reveal something to or about me they might for others as well.

2 – Are there other photographers work or style you admire, and if so who and why?

Initially I was drawn to Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and others from Group f64, as well as Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and many more.  What I liked most about Ansel’s work is that it was his reinterpretation of what his subjects looked like.  His photo of Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, 1927 was his interpretation of how it made him feel when he looked at it, not a direct representation.  I also really enjoy Robert Adams’ writings on photography, even more than I like his photographs. In contemporary terms, I like Steve McCurry, Simon Norfolk, Edward Burtynsky, to name just a few.  I like them because they have created bodies of work with a personal vision full of depth and meaning and employing impeccable craftsmanship.  Without depth and meaning the end result is merely decorative.  Craftsmanship enables a stronger, clearer message.

There are many other photographers that I admire for one reason or another, but I am equally and sometimes more inspired by music, painting, writing, and other art forms.  It’s important to lean as much about other art as possible.  In order for photography to be regarded as an artistic pursuit it must deal with the same kinds of personal expression and working though of issues and ideas as other art forms.

3 – What camera equipment do you feel best suits urban photography, in particular street life and urban landscapes?

It depends on what kind of urban photography you are interested in making.  For street life I’d suggest something small, quick and unobtrusive.  For urban landscapes it could be something more substantial as it doesn’t require the same necessity to shoot from the hip.  However, no matter what you shoot you should get a camera that has a manual override for everything.  Give yourself the task of shooting completely manually for a predetermined period of time.  There is no way to better learn your equipment and the way it responds to an environment, light, exposure, focusing etc., faster or more thoroughly than shooting manually.

While I believe that the significance of a photograph comes from the photographer’s vision I also believe that your work is only as good as its weakest link, so it makes sense to have decent equipment.  You can’t (easily or at all) fix what a poor lens does to an image once the shutter is pressed.

4 – Can you tell me a little of what environments inspire you the most, and how you approach photographing them?

I am drawn to hidden gems that the general public might pass by every day but not notice or recognize its significance.  I like the surprise of turning a corner and experiencing something unexpected, visually rich, and amazing.  I like the feeling of being lost in depths of a location that is out-of-the-ordinary.  What is most important is that it has an emotional effect on me – it makes me feel something.

In order to photograph this kind of subject it’s important to first understand what it is that the place is saying to you – how it makes you feel.  You then need to assess what is causing these feelings, consider the sun, shadows, atmosphere, colours, textures, structures, etc, and then find a framing and camera settings that maximizes these feelings.  This can happen nearly instantaneously or could take a lot of effort and time exploring the space.

You may be interested to know that my capture is only the very first part of the work for me.  I will spend days and sometimes weeks on post processing: finding the best way to convert a particular photography to black and white, where to push and pull the tones, etc, all in the name of maximizing the emotions that I feel for the subject.

5 – Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to a beginner exploring the subject of urban photography what would it be?

Photograph what interests you.  You need to have passion about your subject matter.  Don’t just show what the subject is; show what it isn’t, why it is, when it is, and what it means.  How does your subject react to light, move, change, make you feel?  That is the subject.  Continue to investigate new ways of expressing by exploring, failing, learning, and trying again.

Write an artist’s statement, even if you don’t think you need to.  The self-examination that comes from writing a statement leads to a better understanding of what motivates your work, resulting in a focusing of subject matter.

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