In 2004, Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Goodfellas) appeared in a commercial for American Express. If you’ve ever seen Scorsese in an interview, you know there was very little “acting” going on. In the ad, Scorsese is at his frenetic, obsessive best, reviewing photographs from his nephew’s birthday party. “It’s what I do,” Scorsese says. “My AD saw me last week,” he continues, “he said ‘I love the commercial. It was like being back at the monitor.’” Scorsese offers a running commentary as he flips through the photographs. “The composition is forced. The lighting is bad. Here, we have the protagonist, but where’s the antagonist? Where’s the drama?” In an interview about the spot, Scorsese acknowledges taking himself too seriously. “But you know,” he concludes, “the damn thing is you have to be serious about making a picture.”
I remember seeing the ad when it aired on television and while I’m still not sure why it popped up on my YouTube feed, I’ve watched it several times and it has me thinking about what it means to be “serious” about making pictures. I actually think about what that means a fair bit anyway, but this spot raises a few specific points for discussion. As Scorsese is lamenting his failings at capturing “the narrative thread” of his nephew’s birthday party, not one of his perceived failures revolved around the camera, the lens, the film, or anything even remotely related to gear. For him, what was missing was entirely related to content: lack of drama or story, bad composition, a scene that was overly nostalgic.
Rather than talk about why “it’s not about the gear” or how “it’s all about the vision,” I’m proposing that both camps are equally right and equally wrong, and I’m fairly certain that each is tired of hearing the other’s message. Telling a photographer who has just dropped $6,000 on a Nikon D850 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens that gear doesn’t matter is, frankly, insulting. In the same way, it’s dismissive to insist that someone who shoots with their iPhone “isn’t a real photographer.” Gear and vision are two sides of the same coin, and photography needs them both to exist and to continue to evolve. So rather than worry about whether or not gear is important, ask yourself whether your gear gets in the way of you making pictures.
The fact is, if you’re using a digital camera made in the last five years or so, the answer is probably no. Metering, exposure, autofocus, even ISO and white balance have gotten so good that there’s virtually nothing you need to worry about regarding “getting the shot,” at least from a technical perspective. Cameras like the Fuji XT2 are designed in such a way that they have eschewed the traditional mode dial and allow the photographer to automate as much or as little of the picture taking process as he or she likes — the result of which means that you are free to focus on the picture making process. Remember, Scorsese wasn’t obsessing over the gear. For him, it was entirely about what was in the frame and what he was trying to say with the picture.
There are compositional principles such as balance, negative space, and perspective that are more within our control. However, understanding how to effectively use them is only part of the equation, especially when making photos of people. The human element isn’t as predictable, which means that even Scorsese — an undeniable master of his craft — occasionally misses the mark. Part of our job as photographers is to become proficient enough with our tools — the tangible aspects of making, if you will — that they disappear and allow us to focus more attention on the intangible aspects that are often less within our control.
So what does Scorsese mean to be “serious about making pictures”? I think it begins with deciding what you’re trying to say, whether that’s with a single image or an entire body of work. What’s the narrative thread? If you don’t know what the photograph is trying to say, what do you expect an audience to connect to? And narrative doesn’t have to be complex. For example, “I want to capture the architectural detail of this building at sunset” is a perfectly acceptable narrative. With the what established, you can move on to the how and set about working the subject to best convey those details. Maybe try a longer lens or a tighter composition. If there are arcs and curves, consider tweaking the white balance to enhance the feeling of warmth. Conversely, perhaps a brutalist-style building warrants the cooler tones of blue hour to capitalize on the austerity of the structure. You may even decide that midday, rather than sunset, yields a better balance of light and shadow to communicate your initial idea. While accidents may play a part, great pictures seldom happen by accident — they are often the result of a series of choices made by both the camera and the photographer that come together in a fraction of a second to result in a compelling photograph. If “serious” feels a bit too, well, serious, think of it as intentional or purposeful. Being serious is simply about being aware that you’re making choices and understanding the impact that those choices will have on the final photograph.
What are some of the choices that you make to create more purposeful, compelling photographs?
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