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On being a photographer – book review

The format of this book is a dialogue between David Hurn (a Magnum photographer) and Bill Jay, a long-time friend of Hurn and author specialising in the history and criticism of photography. Jay leads the discussion on ‘being a photographer’. The advice and words of wisdom in the book are from Hurn’s perspective as a highly successful professional photographer, one-time academic, and knowledge of how other similarly successful photographers approach their work.

Topics covered in the book range from definitions of photography, through shooting and cameras, to photographic myths. I found the book a fascinating insight into the wisdom of two highly successful men, gained over their lifetimes. The book is the type of book to which one can return again and again. Some of the things I took away at this point in my development were:

  1.  ‘The only factually correct aspect of photography is that it shows what something looked like – under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the same as the underlying truth of the event or situation.’
  2. ‘…. photography is is only a tool, a vehicle, for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else. It is not the end result.’
  3. ‘…. The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing visual interest, in the theme of the pictures. This curiosity leads to intense examination….’ So, the first and most important decision is what to photograph. And that should be very specific.
  4. Keep a note book of subjects of interest to you and make notes as they occur to you. Then decide which of these subjects are photographable – must be practicable and subjects to which one has good access over a period of time.
  5. ‘A unique style ….. Is the by-product of visual exploration, not its goal. Personal vision comes only from not aiming at it.’ Hurn states that this comes only through time and making of many images.
  6. ‘There are two fundamental elements in picture taking; where to stand and when to release the shutter’
  7. Hurn explains to importance of contact sheets – as a visual diary to help reflect on how one’s photography can be improved. He recommends close examination of the photos that were not so successful – learning from the mistakes.
  8. ‘Photographers should not put pictures in a box under their beds and be the only ones to see them… they want to record what they see and show to somebody else. Photography is abou communication.’


Hurn D & Jay B (2008). On being a photographer. Anacortes, Lenswork Publishing.

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