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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

An Explorer from the Past

Josef Sudek — The True Subject

One of my favorite quotes about photography and the creative process comes from the inventive mind of Ted Orland. He said, "If you can't make a spectacular photograph of a mundane subject, then at least make a mundane photograph of a spectacular subject." Unfortunately, far too many photographers take him seriously and race off to find the spectacular subject. Whole sub-industries have cropped up in the world of travel to transport photographers to exotic locations where they make mundane photographs by the plane-full: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, every place on the planet there is a sand dune, and, now more than ever, exotic locations like Antarctica, Bhutan, Namibia, China, and the Serengeti Plains. I still find myself asking why there are no photographic portfolios from Arkansas, Winnipeg, or your local shopping mall. Is there absolutely nothing of interest to photograph in any of those places? Nothing? Really?

Which brings us to one of my favorite photographers of all times, Josef Sudek. A one-armed veteran of World War I, Sudek became Prague's most renowned and remarkable photographer of the 20th century. One of the amazing sidelights of Sudek's career is that he used view cameras to make his marvelous photographs — with one arm, one hand, and no assistance. Those of you who are familiar with the mechanics of view cameras, just try to imagine trying to do this with one arm.

The great lesson from Sudek isn't so much how he photographed as much as it is what he photographed. Poor, in difficult health, with one arm, he was severely limited in what he could venture out to photograph. Long travel was difficult if not impossible, particularly considering the political climate in which he lived and worked during the Soviet occupation. In spite of these restrictions, that might easily have destroyed the career or the artmaking aspirations of many of us, Sudek persevered and photographed what was close at hand. He photographed the rain on his kitchen window and the leafless winter tree just outside. He photographed the egg and cheese and glass of water he was about to consume for lunch. He photographed the corner of his own studio. He photographed his neighbor. He photographed what he could and made remarkable images that still inspire generations of photographers on multiple continents. He may not have been able to travel very far but the impact of his photography is literally global.

I'll go even further and suggest that what Sudek photographed is of less importance than the emotions his photographs evoke. Photographing the rain on his kitchen window could be a way to bring about the joys of spring, but in his photograph there is an unmistakable feeling of melancholy. Is the subject of his photograph the window, the rain, or the melancholy? His photograph of the egg and cheese he is about to eat for lunch could be about the paucity of his meal, but in his photograph there is an unmistakable sense of gratitude. Is the subject of his photograph the egg and the cheese, or the gratitude he feels toward this humble meal?

Whenever I look at Sudek's work (btw, I've only seen his work in the half dozen or so books that are available in English), I'm inspired to rethink and to remember that objects are not content — they are just stuff. Content is what we feel when we see a work of art — and that can be encouraged with any subject in any location.

When so many of our generation of photographers are pursuing the spectacular subject, Sudek showed us that exploring our own corner of the world can be as visually exciting as chasing off to exotic locations. It may be difficult to travel to the ends of the world, but that difficulty is often a function of time and budget. The difficulties of photographing in one's own home or neighborhood are not measured in time or dollars, but rather in sensitivity, aesthetics, and creativity. In my way of thinking, that makes Sudek's images even more inspiring than other photographers whose primary accomplishment was getting there and coming back with an aesthetically less interesting image.