What you’ll need: a camera, a subject

Songlist: I Turn My Camera On by Spoon, Cameras by Matt and Kim

Further reading: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams, A Photographer’s Life by Annie Leibovitz


One of my favorite Elliott Erwitt photographs

You might not think it by seeing the quality of pictures I take on my iPhone, but I won a photography contest once. Granted, the contest was limited to the few hundred people teaching in my program in Spain, but still it rewarded me 100€. Not bad for an amateur, eh?

My winning photograph--dancing flamenco on my apartment roof

Besides that first place photo I’ve never been particularly proficient with a camera, but have long admired the art of photography. The first time I was truly struck by a photographer’s work was when I visited the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid at the age of 16. We’d gone to admire Picasso’s Guernica, but had an extra couple hours to explore and so toured the special exhibits. One large room was dedicated to Elliott Erwitt‘s work. I was awestruck.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered the father of photojournalism, published a book of his images in 1952 called The Decisive Moment. He borrowed the title from a seventeenth century quote: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” As Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

Elliott Erwitt is a genius at recognizing and capturing these decisive moments–you have the sense that if his shutter had closed a moment earlier or later the entire picture would have been worthless. After being enamored of his work, I bought a book of his photographs and have often used the images as prompts for short stories. For indeed his photographs make the viewer ask questions–Why is this man leaping? What is this couple thinking as they dance? Are the children afraid of the impending storm?

Great photography need not always be of this genre. Ansel Adams accentuated the majesty of the land. Annie Leibovitz creates gorgeous moments and captures her subjects at their most vulnerable, otherworldly, striking. But the surprise of Erwitt’s photography is what I love most. And, I think, these are the kind of images that can get burned in our brains. Like the Tiananmen Square Tank Man. Like the Vietnamese children running from a napalm attack. While some of Erwitt’s photographs are as dramatic as these, he captures the whole range of human emotion: humor, joy, grief, absurdity. If I were to pursue a career in photography, I’d aspire to shoot like Erwitt.

Who can resist a good dog photo?