This is a review of the book On being a photographer by David Hurn and Bill Jay, 3rd edition, LensWork Publishing, Anacortes, WA, 2007. This is a 5''x7'' book of about 160 pages (Available from (for example) for about $10-15. I realize most people reading this are probably not from the US but mention this pricing to indicate that this book is relatively inexpensive.)

First, I'm not a critic and have only taken photography seriously for about a year and a half now, so this is from a relative beginner. I have no connection with the authors or A more expert review is here.

This book is basically a conversation between Bill Jay and David Hurn. Both are very experienced photographers and teachers, though David Hurn is the "senior author", being the more renowned photographer. David Hurn is a member of the Magnum Group (a group of photographers co-founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson); Bill Jay is now retired but has held many prestigious positions in the field of photography.

Overall, this book is very well-written: well-organized, well-paced, and inspirational. It starts off with an introduction to Hurn - his later life as it relates to his work. This chapter ends with the following quotation of Hurn:

In previous ages the word `art' was used to cover all forms of human skill. The Greeks believed that those skills were given by the gods to man for the purpose of improving the condition of life. In a real sense, photography has fulfilled the Greek ideal of art; it should not only improve the photographer, but also improve the world.

The next chapter is "Some definitions". Here the conversation starts, question(by Jay)-and-answer(by Hurn), which is the tone of the rest of the book. What is photojournalism, fine-art photography, documentary photography, and narrative? Though most would call Hurn a 'documentary photographer', he prefers the term 'reportage photographer'. This terminology forms a basis of the later discussions.

The next chapter is "Selecting a subject." Here David Hurn's advice is roughly summariezed in the following quotation:

The first thing to do is carry a notebook and during quiet times or as the thought occurs to you, compile a list of  anything that really interests you. In other words, write a list of  things which fascinate you without regard to photography. ... Be as specific as possible. After you have exhausted the list, you begin to cut it down by asking yourself these questions. Is it visual? ... Is it practical? ... Is it a subject about which I know enough? ... Is it interesting to others?

There follows several chapters on very practical advice - "Shooting the single picture", "Creating contacts" (as in developing contact sheets from film), "The picture essay",  "Cameras, shoes, and other essentials", "The future of photography", and "Some photographic myths". You also learn about some of the photographers who most influenced them are. The book ends, by way of advice, with these basic principles:

  • Photographers are not primarily interested in photography. They have a focused energy and enthusism which is directed at an outside, physically present, other. They bring to this subject an exaggerated sense of curiousity, backed up by knowledge gleaned from reading, writing, talking, and note-taking.
  • The photographer transmits this passion in `the thing itself' by making pictures, therefore the subject must lend itself to a visual medium, as opposed to, say, writing about it.
  • The photographer must assiduously practice his/her craft so that there is no technical impediment between realizing the idea and transmitting it through the final print.
  • The photographer must have the ability to analyze the components of the subject-idea so that a set of images not only reflects the basic categories but also displays visual variety. Intense, clear thinking is a prerequisite to fine photography.
  • The photographer is aware that, like all difficult endeavors, to be good at photography requires an unusual capacity for continuous hard work and good luck.

I loved this book and would be interested in hearing of comments from others who have looked at it.