The Soul of the Photographer

If there is one book about the photographic process released the last year and a half that I really want to recommend it’s “The Soul of the Camera” by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. It’s book for those who have come to a point where equipment and technique is of less importance, but rather seek ways to express themselves and feel the need to develop their personal vision. As he writes himself; clearly the camera matters—otherwise we wouldn’t be able to take photos—but in the end the photographer matters more.

It’s the photographer and his or her approach to photography that duChemin addresses in the book. How can you use yourself, your curiosity, your emotions, your creativity to unleash your photographic vision, your distinctive voice? That is what he writes about. It’s about being authentic to yourself and about photographing with a clear intention. As such, the title is actually misleading: It is not about the soul of the camera, but rather the soul of the photographer. I guess what duChemin argues is that the soul of the camera is us, the photographers, the ones holding the camera. It is us, and our vision, that puts the soul into our photographs.

There are plenty of books about how to take pictures by mastering composition, exposure, lighting, post-production, and more. But there aren’t many books about what goes on inside the mind of a photographer, what they think about, and how they approach photography. That is what duChemin addresses in “The Soul of the Camera”. This is a book for photographers who want to take pictures, not play with their gear. If you want to think differently about photography—whether you have the latest gear or not—this book is for you.

The book is beautifully written and in a manner, that perhaps only David duChemin can write. He uses the own experience and development as a springboard to write about the photographic process from the point of the photographer’s mindset. The writing is philosophical and expansive and thus will have a different meaning to different photographers at different points on their journey.

The “Soul of the Camera” feels like a different style of book from some of David duChemin’s previous works, such as “Within the Frame” and “Photographically Speaking”. Yet it really isn’t so different. Each of these books takes a core theme and explores it, trying to convey to the reader its importance and how it might be used to better our photography, and even to learn what better photography means. “The Soul of the Camera” is similar to the other two in that it focuses on a theme, that of “the Photographers Place in Picture-Making.” None of these books are very focused on gear or technique and this book is even less so than the others.

The one objection I have towards his writing is that it’s a little too vague. It’s like someone saying you should be mindful. But if you don’t know how to be mindful, it’s a statement that doesn’t help you anywhere. In trying not to set parameters for other’s development, duChemin becomes too elusive and not concrete enough to help the reader on his or her way towards a more mindful approach to photography.

He writes so himself, about vision, that it’s an elusive topic. So instead of attacking the subject head one, he becomes unusual unclear. Yes, vision is a vague subject matter, but duChemin has written clearly and insightfully about it so many times before. He excuses himself for exactly that in “The Soul of the Camera”; he says he has written so much about vision before, that he has become very self-conscious about writing any further about. Unfortunately, that makes his writing in “The Soul of the Camera” less enlightening.

Do you need another book about photography? DuChemin kind of answers himself: “[Y]ou don’t need another book[…] Yes, read all the books you can get your hands on. But you probably don’t need them as much as you need time to make this craft yours. What you need is time to make photographs.”

I principally will have to agree with duChemin. However, that view doesn’t give the whole picture (no pun intended), as I am sure he will agree upon; otherwise he wouldn’t have written yet another book. Books are good for inspiration, good for new ideas and good for learning more. If that’s what you need, I will highly recommend “The Soul of the Camera”. Despite the few objections I have raised, it’s an inspiring book for any photographer searching for his or her voice.

Then, after having read the book, you still need to go out there and practice. You still need to put in the time to actually make photographs.

In the book, duChemin explores what it means to make better and more personal photographs. Illustrated with a collection of his black and white images, the book’s essays address topics such as craft, mastery, vision, audience, discipline, and authenticity. “The Soul of the Camera” is a personal and deeply sensible book that quietly yet forcefully challenges the idea that our cameras, lenses and settings are anything more than dumb and mute tools.

Once again; DuChemin’s and the book’s point is that it’s the photographer—not the camera—that can make better photographs. As he writes in the book: “The camera on its own is a wonder, but in the hands of the poet, the storyteller, the seeker of change, or the frustrated artist, it can create something alive that touches our humanity.”


The Soul of the Camera: The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making
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Zen Camera

A Book Review


In last week’s post I wrote about Your Daily Record, a creative habit that resembles a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions in which you let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. The idea I picked up from the book Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography by David Ulrich. The book itself is worth looking into for anyone interested in expanding his or her photography.

Zen Camera isn’t the first photo book which draws upon Eastern philosophy in its approach to photography. Others include books such as The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing and Opening The Good Eye: A Path to True Seeing, all books I can recommend even if you are not interested in Eastern Philosophy at all. They all, included Zen Camera, give you a unique and useful approach to expanding your photography.

However Zen Camera, differs from the others in that it’s more a cohesive program or a long term workshop than a book of inspiration and new ideas. David Ulrich draws on the principles of Zen practice as well as forty years of teaching photography to offer six reflective lessons for developing your self-expression as a photographer. His ambition with the book is to purify our seeing and allow our original self to emerge.

In my opinion, Ulrich largely accomplishes the objective. At least if you are willing to look beyond his sometimes a little lengthy deliberations about the meaning of it all, if you get my notion. The six lessons take you step by step from initially developing you seeing and observation skills to how to be able to reach mastery and being able to have your photography reflect whom you are as a person in grander perspective. Of course, mastery is not something you can learn by reading a book, but Ulrich’s reflections around the way to mastery are both well founded and encouraging. In fact, reading a book will not be of much help at all. You need to convert the words into skills by practicing. And Ulrich offers plenty of fun, applicable and challenging exercises.

The foundation of the “program” running as a red thread through Zen Camera is the Daily Record. All the lessons and all the exercises in each lesson can be fulfilled through the Daily Record. By working your way through the lessons and exercises you eyes will open up to seeing most likely in a different way than you are used to. It might also transform the way you perceive life, depending on your susceptibility to the Zen philosophy. At least Ulrich aims at making his thoughts valid not only for your photography but for life as such. As he write in the preface; “Zen Camera is not only about photography; it is about you. In six lessons, it guides you to cultivate creativity with the camera and all areas of your life… It helps you realize Socrates’ great directive, Know thyself, and uncover the seeds of the authentic self, hidden behind layers of conditioning and socializing”.

I am not a Zen practitioner myself, and sometimes Ulrich’s deliberations around life and meaning of life seem a little too contrived to me. It’s just too much of it and a bit too woozy and lofty. However, I am sure others will have a different perception of this. The language in the book is also somewhat scholarly and studious as is evident in the quote above—which at times makes it demanding to read. Furthermore, Ulrich’s wordiness can at times be a hurdle in and of itself for fluid reading. Personally, what I find most unpleasing is his tendency towards using a flourishing languages. An example: “Freshness blooms from the beginner’s mind that has its focus in the eternal now”. For me the language distracts. I get caught up in the wording itself rather than what the words try to convey.

Despite my objections, I have no problem recommending the book. You will just have to take it for what it is. But I am quite certain that no matter how you look upon Eastern philosophy and no matter how skilled or not skilled you are, you will arrive on the other side of the book with a different and more developed approach to photography, as long as you dig into it and transform the ideas into a practical approach. Zen Camera will make you a better photographer and if you can see beyond its elusive framework, it will be both inspirational and encouraging.

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