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Life is Like a Camera?

“Life is like a camera. Just focus on what’s important and capture the good times, develop from the negatives, and if things don’t work out, just take another shot.” – Anonymous

Respectfully, life is not like a camera. To assert otherwise is glib and cheesy and only shows a lack of experience in both life and photography. Life is so much more complex, and if you’ve lived a rich and deep life, you’ve probably also had your share of sorrows and times so dark, so entirely absent of light that you couldn’t possibly make a photograph even if you were inclined to pick the camera up in the first place. If life were like a camera, I’d have traded mine in many times over the years for a better model, you know what I mean? I’d also have asked for a bigger…lens. 😂

No, life isn’t like a camera, but there’s an idea in that quote that resonates; I believe the notion that the skills it takes to become a mindful photographer are among the skills that make for a good life.

It takes an awareness of moments (not just in the big strokes but in the subtleties hardly noticed by others), the small details that give those moments their complexity and nuance. If it’s true that how we live our moments is how we live our lives, then the person who has learned to experience those moments more fully will experience life more fully. We can’t control how long we live (though we can probably lengthen our lives a little if we stop doing stupid shit), but we can choose to live with greater depth. And the camera is a gift of grace if it helps us hone our sensitivity to the quality of passing time, even slowing it, giving us the space to wonder and to remember moments that might otherwise have been forgotten or even unnoticed in the first place.

With time, photographers learn that nearly everything within the frame looks different with a change of perspective. A move to the left or right, up or down, controls how elements in the frame relate to each other. The story changes, often dramatically, when we alter the angle from which we view it. A different lens, a different filter, and it changes again. The photographer with some experience understands that vision is not only what we see but how we see, and that’s as true with the camera in our hands as it is without it. In that way, life is not at all like a camera. Life is the subject.

How we see and experience life is very much a question of where we choose to place the camera and the perspective we choose to embrace. Understanding that goes a long way to the making of an interesting photograph, not to mention an interesting life.

I’ve had a camera in my hand for so long that I don’t remember what it was like to be without it. I don’t know that the 13-year-old version of me ever looked out at the world as I am this morning, the fog dropping down from the hills behind my home, and experienced wonder at the light as the sun struggles to break through. Thirteen-year-olds often have their minds elsewhere. But the camera has persistently nudged me since then to notice. “Look at the light,” it implores us.

A photographer begins by paying attention to how much light is there and slowly gains a sensitivity to its other qualities: is it warm or cool, is it hard or soft, from what angle does it paint a subject, having come 147 million kilometres to do so? With time, a photographer learns to value the shadows, to see them not as the absence of light but as a source of mystery, and to include them as important parts of a composition. In a photograph, mood and real feeling are often created with less light (even colours become more saturated and intense) when underexposed.

It seems to me that a life well-lived is one in which we find light in unexpected places and look long enough into the shadows that we find mystery, not fear.

The photographer works in light, space, and time. Those are the raw materials, and you need a camera to make a photograph from them. But once learned, the greater gift is found beyond the camera: experiencing more fully what’s before our eyes and perceiving it with greater creativity. Being more aware of time and the moments our lives are made of, perhaps not to conjure more of them but to experience more deeply the moments we have. Becoming more sensitive to light, seeing the full spectrum, and finding something redeemable (if not downright beautiful) in the shadows.

What photography does not do and cannot do is encourage us to take another shot “if things don’t work out.” A sensitivity to time (and to the unique quality of moments that will never repeat themselves) does the opposite. It urges us to do it now. While we can. To press the shutter, to seize the moment. It’s true; you might miss it. And you might even get another crack at it. But as I turn 51 in a few days, I’m more aware than ever that there are fewer moments ahead of me than have passed me by. This doesn’t dissuade me from taking risks but the opposite. The time is now.

Moments are seldom repeatable. Not the moment the moon rises like a silver sliver under a blanket of heavy cloud over Hernandez, New Mexico (Ansel Adams, 1941), not the moment a man in a hat jumps a puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lasazre in Paris (Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1930), and not the moment you inhabit now.

To be more sensitive to time is to be more mindful of its passing. Maybe we get another chance to say “I love you”; maybe we don’t.

Maybe we get many more years to photograph the family together, put away the old tensions that have kept us distant, or make time for each other. Maybe we don’t. But we do have now, and more urgently: we might only have now. You can make a photograph in almost any light, and you can choose one of many different perspectives; what you cannot do is make a photograph of a moment that has passed. I suppose I might not have needed a camera to teach me that had my life gone in a different direction, but it has helped.

Life is not like a camera. It’s so much more. But the camera has given me a richer life, and for that, I am most grateful.

Among the many gifts it has imparted is you. And before the moment passes, I want to tell you how grateful I am for you. I make the photographs I create and write what I do not only for me but for you. I do it in the hopes of making a difference, of making your life a little fuller in some way. I couldn’t do that if you didn’t read what I write or care about what I photograph. You give me purpose and a place to put my love for this craft and those who practice it, and I am incredibly grateful. Thank you.

Cynthia joins me in wishing you a holiday filled with light, and for those of you for whom those lights cast more of a shadow this year than they did last year, we wish you love and courage.

For the Love of the Photograph,


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