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   Purism in Photography!


Last Updated 14th March 2014

Purism in it's 'rawest form' is about using a manual camera with an optical viewfinder, a manual focus lens, a lens filter, a roll off film and a brain that can determine the exposure in relation to the light and the pressing of the shutter button to fire the shutter and capture the image. The creation is complete and the development of the negative is undertaken at home and the final print is produced using an enlarger. The smell of the darkroom chemicals stimulates the senses and the entire experience is enhanced by the buzz you get when that final print appears in the dish and is finally framed on the wall. To this day, those photographers who maintain this 'purist approach' in their photography, achieve the greatest fulfillment.

Digital cameras have created a new generation of 'lazy photographers' and the root cause is the manufacturers' who in their desire to seduce the customer, promote and sell digital cameras with technology that takes away most of the hard work and weakens the thought process.  This is further compromised by companies who sell software packages for post processing digital camera 'RAW' image files on a computer whereby the photographer can adjust them and iron out any defects in the images.

Today in this digital age, purism has evolved and the 21st century photographer has learned to bypass all the auto technology in a modern digital camera and stick rigidly to manual controls with the absolute minimum of post processing using software on a computer. Many purist photographers will never use software but instead take the time to properly set-up the menu ' jpeg image parameters' in the camera whereby the jpeg file images produced are ready to print. Purism is so much more than the way you capture images it also relates to your approach to photography, the locations, material and the planning of projects but most of all it is about the body of work that you will accumulate in your lifetime which brings you immense fulfillment.

A typical example of a modern 'RETRO' digital camera that a purist photographer might use -

From the New York Times Mr. Dee, 68, has retired after a 39-year career as the Soho Photographer, documenting work for artists, galleries, exhibitions, books and portfolios. He is leasing his space at 12 Wooster Street, just north of Canal Street, and moving with his wife, Sarala, to Miami. The moving vans will arrive on July 24. The photo collection will not come with him. “It has value to someone,” Mr. Dee said last week. “Not to me.” The absence of captions and a lack of storage space have discouraged several institutions from accepting the archive. The National Gallery of Art, Getty Images, and the Fales Library and Special Collections of New York University have declined his offer, Mr. Dee said.

It is a strange statement for a photographer to make, especially after a lifetime of work - "
“It has value to someone, not to me.” I guess that photography can become very boring and repetitive; the professionals are out there making money shooting the same stuff every day and the hobbyists, well there are millions of them all shooting the same material. Digital images are sitting on computer hard discs, memory cards and most will be viewed a few times in their existence before unceremoniously being dumped into a waste bin on the demise of the photographers who captured them. A few of these images might find their way into a collection where the new owners of the copyright will continue to make money from them.

Today, everyone with a camera in a mobile phone is a photographer, and capable of capturing that photojournalist shot. Recently (31st May 2013) the Chicago Sun-Times laid of 28 staff photographers and is
counting on its remaining staff of journalists to also become mobile photographers. In a world of billions of photographic images, it may well become increasingly difficult for some photographers to find their own niche, their own interpretation of images that might stand the test of time, images with some longevity and testament to their skills and perhaps even art in their final analysis.

The photography of Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965) -

The purist seeks out 'niche' material, striving to find hidden depth, meaning and uniqueness in their images. Many great photographers have struggled, some suffer anxiety over their inability to conquer this and to produce images true to their aspirations. Fortunately it is an inward struggle with little thought to other peoples opinions regarding their work.

The work from Steve MCurry who has spent more than three decades on the road as a documentary photographer and is the recipient of the Leica Hall of Fame Award for 2011.

Some purist photographers can be found in the war zones, in far flung places, seeking new locations and material that is rarely seen or experienced. Many of these photographers work freelance, some work for national newspapers and some work out of vocation. The photography of the photojournalist is that of images that portray in journalistic form, the hardship, the joys, the life and death struggles to survive everyday life in far flung places. Many photographers were photojournalists, long before the term was phrased.

Joey Lawrence - Ethiopia Location -



The offshoot or perhaps the catalyst of the photojournalist is the street photographer who armed with a 50mm 'manual focus' lens on a compact 35mm full frame camera uses the streets to capture moments in time. The 'purist' strives to produce art in the images with impressionism or surrealism elements to bring to the viewer much more than a snapshot. The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's style and body of work was more than just walking down the street taking pictures with a Leica camera. In his early days he studied music and he did train as an 'artist'. From the very start of his photography he did have an eye for the 'artistic' image and this did influence and accelerate his photographic skills. Martin Munkasci's Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika greatly influenced him as did the 'Surrealists' who helped to channel his photographic direction. The 'Surrealists' maintained that ordinary photographs contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings. I think that the image 'Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika' does make an 'artistic' impression and embodies 'human life' within the image which is surely the statement. It was much more than an image that could be defined by the 'Surrealists' and I firmly believe that Cartier-Bresson transcended their perceived photographic ideals............this combination of 'art' with the 'visual statement' within the image is why his images were so successful.

Henri was known for his 'inward analysis' that to be creative in photography you must be quick to seize the moment, that point in time where the scene, the art, the statement are interpreted by the eye and the shot is taken, the image captured. Photography to Henri was a vocation, it would cause him great anxiety when he over indulged and the images did not come. He regarded it as a physical pleasure that stimulated his senses and admitted that it did not take any brains to be a photographer. Henri admits to planning some of his locations and waiting on subjects to enter the scene, he recognised the possibility of 'art' in the shot, whilst he waited for the right moment, the right step and the image he desired. He also accepted that there was no rule, no set limits on the number of shots he would take to achieve one suitable image. There is a great DVD which you can purchase on-line. It is an 18 minute 'short film' which was made back in 1973 with samples of his images and narrated by Henri Cartier-Bresson himself. He speaks very good English with an interesting accent and discusses his images and technique - Decisive Moment DVD 

Vivian Maier - "Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American amateur street photographer who was born in New York but grew up in France, and after returning to the US, worked for about forty years as a nanny in Chicago. During those years she took about 100,000 photographs, primarily of people and cityscapes most often in Chicago, although she traveled and photographed worldwide"

Check out the following video containing some of Vivian Maier's Street Photography and more information on the official website -  Vivian Maier

The photography of Rui Palha

Perish the thought that the 'purist' would use video as a means to expanding the art. Video must not be allowed to detract from stills photography so breaking the concentration and diluting the experience. The entire essence of 'stills photography' is as one with the camera to capture a moment in time and to hold it in print. The eye, the brain can then review that moment, can grasp the subtle meaning, the beauty, perhaps in awe; something that may be missed in the numerous frames of a video. A print is singular, hard to miss in it's frame on the wall; it draws the eye, it draws conversation!

It may prove wise to forget the old cliché "the camera is just a tool" because a photographer who is dedicated and pure to his 'art' has long recognised that the relationship with the camera plays an important role in their photography. Post processing should not be a substitute for the handling of the wrong type of camera or the handling of the the right type of camera or the inability to 'correctly' capture the lighting within a scene. Every new (or second hand) camera (and the lens) requires a learning curve, time for the photographer to become familiar with it's manual controls, it's handling and eventually an acceptance that it is fit for purpose and can enhance the photographic experience. Many photographers have spent a fortune on different cameras and lenses only to discover that their first choice was the correct choice, all along. When digital post processing becomes the mainstay of the hobby you are no longer a 'purist' photographer but more likely to be recognised as a digital artist.

Autofocus is a byword for 'lack of control', you may point the lens at the subject but the camera decides the focus when you press the AF button or half/press/hold the shutter button. Purism is manual focus of the lens, the eye perceives the focus and any adjustment of the lens is set by the photographer. Depth of field is controlled by your brain, the photographer sets the aperture of choice and manually turns the distance scale ring on the lens barrel to place the selected distance and area in focus between the chosen aperture markings. A lens without a depth of field scale and aperture markings is not for the purist photographer!

Another old cliché to forget "the eye is more important that the camera" because even the worst photographer can find new and much higher levels in their photography through sheer hard work in developing their skills. Some 'purists' after time and even with extensive training, break all the rules to produce images that are simply breathtaking in their content and art. There is no substitute for diligence, fortitude and tenacity in continuing with your photography and eventually a 'niche' is found which delivers a great feeling of achievement. Never become disillusioned, always strive forward and remember that photographers with this 'supposed magic eye' have invariably shot 100 images or more to produce one good one from the series. There is no greater feeling for the 'purist' than capturing an image using only the camera, lens and hardware filters to produce a print on the wall.

Purists abandon everyday and general photography, they do not get caught up in the cliché "the best camera is the one you have with you" and shoot images of anything and everything. The purist has reached a level where
the 'niche' has been established, the goal has been determined and there is no deviation. The locations, the material and the projects have all been pre-set and the camera system and accessories have been carefully chosen. The purist is in no hurry, the shoot is planned, executed and he is not in the least bit concerned about the size and weight of the camera system - if the lenses have to be heavy with large optics to achieve set photographic goals, so be it.

A neat video on setting up the project shoot -

The 'purism' in photography is not just about whether it is right to digitally manipulate an image. The 'purest' photographer regards photography as a form of art, a vocation and the ultimate direction is about seeking development, fulfillment and contentment with their photography. Snapshots are not for the purist, their photography invariably contains elements of impressionism and surrealism. Mundane seascapes are transformed into black and white masterpieces through the clever use of neutral density hardware filters placed in front of the lens which turn water into layers of froth and graduated filters which transform the sky by adding drama to the clouds.

The purist photographer in the 21st century may well use a digital camera BUT with all the 'bells and whistles' technology switched off. The favourite modes are aperture priority and manual with the viewfinder the preferred viewing option, although the LCD screen is used for tripod work, especially landscapes where precise manual focusing and exposure compensation is invariably selected. The digital purist is only too aware of falling into the trap of 'lazy photography' and strives to avoid it; not for him the machine gunning shots and the extensive correction in Photoshop. He strives to capture the light, the overall setting and when necessary using only hardware filters fixed to the front of the lens to balance the lighting, even creating an mood (e.g. 1930s colours) and very often adding tints to monochrome images. The camera produced jpeg is the preferred method of image production with the camera 'capture settings' adjusted to suit. He would like the camera to produce a tiff file but has to settle for a 'RAW' file alongside the camera jpeg which can be used to produce a tiff with the absolute minimum of post processing as the 'purist strand' must be maintained.

Whether you use an optical viewfinder or an electronic viewfinder the photographer is forced to place a heavy reliance on the accuracy of the camera's exposure metering systems. The camera in aperture priority mode and using evaluative (matrix) metering reads reflective light from a scene and calculates the shutter speed in relation to the ISO rating and the aperture set by the photographer. It also produces a histogram of the reading for the display screen, either in the viewfinder and/or the LCD screen. For a large proportion of even balanced light scenes this will prove relatively accurate but in scenes where the light is uneven and where there is incident light, the meter will struggle to accurately determine the parameters. The camera exposure meter can cause the settings to overexpose the highlights and the photographer when attempting to adjust the exposure compensation can underexpose the image. The camera's exposure spot meter in conjunction with the camera's dynamic range capability can assist to provide more evenly balanced parameters but the spot meter still cannot compensate for incident light. Many professional photographers will use an external 'hand held' light meter and manually setup the camera as the light meter can read incident lighting as well as spot reading and knows the dynamic range calibrations of the camera to quickly work out the camera parameters for you.

In most videos you see on the internet, even some videos on Sekonic Light Meters, the host will invariably take the 'RAW' image final and finally tweak the colours in Adobe Lightroom software to make the image 'pop'. To avoid using Lightroom or any other software package, you can use multiple
Lee Filters in a holder on the front of your lens to bring out the colours at the time of capture. Thanks to the camera's LCD screen you can now see the full effect of adding Lee graduated and colour filters to the Lee filter mounting frame on the lens.

Examples of the landscape work of Joe Cornish -

The purist photographer, tends to concentrate on their own niche area of photography, some will emulate the work of previous photographers but seek new material and ways of capturing it that adds their own interpretation to a recognised type of photography whilst others create their own 'staged' scenes and manipulate the digital data to present images that are unique at that time.

The stills work on Francesco Pellegrino website -

'Purism in Photography' also has the discipline strand; there is no temptation to store every film negative or to archive every digital image onto a computer hard disc. The single image that stands out, the one that is captured with just the right light, the right composition, perhaps the only one in an entire days shooting has it's settings and location recorded or if in digital format, the metadata is meticulously edited and stored in RAW, tiff, jpeg image file formats and printed. The rest are deleted/binned, there is no going back, the images that are rejected first hand are removed from your mind, there are no regrets, no opportunity to reconsider, only forward to new horizons.

Strong discipline in reducing the number of final film negatives or digital images goes hand in hand with the longevity of a photographers work and whether you are a professional or a hobbyist, at some stage, you may ponder over how you will store them. We are witnessing the gradual demise of film negatives and the massive shift towards digital image files stored on computers and we recognise that the digital image file format may become obsolete in the years ahead. 'RAW' image files are at best controlled and developed by the camera manufacturers, each with their own standard and with no guarantee of their business survival or longevity in support. The Adobe Digital Negative (DNG) Format is reckoned to be universal but again its future is determined by the continual support and development of software (post processing) companies such as Adobe and PhaseOne. We are faced with the stark realisation that alongside a 'RAW' the converted tiff format may prove to be a safer long-term digital storage medium.

Is the 'Purism in Photography' lost when you become distracted by gear and photographic forums; is it wise to devote so much time to reading up about cameras and lenses and to participate in endless discussions on Facebook and Twitter regarding gear? How many photographers become distracted and even lose direction and development through continually changing their camera system in their pursuit of 'acceptance' amongst forum members? Is the elaborate post processing by dodging, burning and layering of your chosen image for forum submission worth the time and effort for that one day of fame or even regurgitated in black and white for a further submission? Recognition of your photography and your skills as a photographer can prove a fickle pursuit and dilute the 'purism' of the vocation.

Associated Articles -

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The Sick Kids


Richard Lawrence
United Kingdom


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