Taking a (Good) Photograph Is Harder Than You Think

Photography is one of the arts that everyone thinks they do well. Look at this picture, they say: isn’t that a great expression, fantastic sunset, beautiful moment? Well, if we’re being polite, yes, it is. But it isn’t often memorable, and it rarely qualifies as good, in an aesthetic/art criticism criteria sense. We’re not going to get too deep into what those guidelines are, but we suggest that if you imagined seeing those photos in an exhibition space with no distractions, no friend hovering over you, eager for praise, you’d rapidly conclude that the images on view were pretty but not impressive.

But this attitude goes some way to describe the difficulties in being a professional photographer. The hours they spend in studying composition and pattern within a three dimensional space, working out camera angles, shutter speed, printing techniques, and so on are as much as any artist in other disciplines, although without that certain mystique of those specialties. However, a professional photographer rarely gets credit for this labor; instead receiving praise for their timing, attention to detail, and perhaps most irritatingly, their luck in getting the shot. Preparation and practice have their place too, and nowhere is this more applicable than in street photography. Whether walking or staying in one location, the photographer must be prepared for everything and nothing, watching both people and their environment to capture that instant when everything fits perfectly, to recognize when a moment turns into The Moment. And one of the finest practitioners of that elusive skill is Shawn Walker, whose early career photographs are on view now at Bruce Silverstein Gallery. Walker’s photographic training and education was helped immeasurably by his membership in the Kamoinge Workshop, a Black photographers’ collective that met weekly for advice and critiques, and it’s influence can be seen in these images, with their blend of individual portraits set in the context of their daily lives and era. While these prints are essentially a time capsule of the 1960s and 70s the expressive qualities of his subjects are universal, no matter the date.

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