365 Aspects of the Art of Photography

I was going to say there’s noth­ing quite like it. Not about pho­tog­ra­phy; not on the web. Brooks Jensen’s video series “Here’s a Thought” on the art of pho­tog­ra­phy is, itself, a work of art. But in that way there is some­thing else like it.

Every day, for a year now — from March 2019 to March 2020 — Brooks Jensen, the pub­lish­er of Lenswork Mag­a­zine (daily.lenswork.com) has pub­lished a short, 2‑minute, video talk on the art of pho­tog­ra­phy. There are hun­dreds of small insights, tips, spurs and rules-of-thumb for pho­tog­ra­phers with one theme: how make and pub­lish pho­tographs as works of art.

These talks are pages from the note­books of a thought­ful, wide­ly-admired but unpre­ten­tious pub­lish­er and pho­tog­ra­ph­er who has been prac­tic­ing his art since the 1980s. It’s a one-to-one tuto­r­i­al on moti­vat­ing, con­ceiv­ing, mak­ing, edit­ing and curat­ing pho­tog­ra­phy. Most of all it’s about the dis­ci­pline need­ed to make art. But, as the title sug­gests, there’s no study plan. Instead of march­ing right up to the ques­tion of how to be a pho­to­graph­ic artist, Jensen wan­ders around it stop­ping, briefly, by lots of dif­fer­ent answers to offer a few com­ments, some sug­ges­tions, some­times a joke. It’s a col­lec­tion of small enter­tain­ments, sure, but with some fas­ci­nat­ing ideas included.

What do we see in these videos? Strange­ly, not a lot. They’re square; not in YouTube’s 16:9 ratio. So we see a head-and-shoul­ders por­trait of Jensen that near­ly fills the frame. Behind him in most episodes is what seems to be well-ordered shelves of pho­tog­ra­phy books. There’s noth­ing to focus on but Brooks’ face and expres­sion, as if you were sit­ting across the table from him, not dis­tract­ed by any­thing going on around you. The tight fram­ing makes no room for debate or demon­stra­tion. There are no pic­tures. There’s no dis­cus­sion except by Brooks; not much even in the com­ments below video. For good (doubt­less) or oth­er­wise, it’s all-Brooks all-the-time.

Some­times we see him on loca­tion. In those videos, once or twice, he’s turned the cam­era so we see what he sees (Mt Hood in Wash­ing­ton state). One or two videos he made in a hotel room while trav­el­ling. But most of the time the only vari­ables — apart from his, for­tu­nate­ly ani­mat­ed, expres­sion — are his shirts. They tip us off to what seems to be pro­duc­tion batch­ing: four or five videos with the same but­ton-down-col­lared shirt neat­ly pressed, then anoth­er four or five in an open-necked check shirt…

What do we hear (or read; there are close-cap­tions if you want)? Almost any­thing about pho­tog­ra­phers, doing pho­tog­ra­phy, and the prac­tice and appre­ci­a­tion of art espe­cial­ly, but not exclu­sive­ly, pho­to­graph­ic art. There’s very lit­tle about cam­eras or tech­nique. Jensen is more inter­est­ed in prac­tice than in the prac­ti­cal details; prob­a­bly because prac­tice is much hard­er to learn and sustain.

Giv­en their focus, the talks could have been seri­ous, arty and dull. They could eas­i­ly have been preachy. But Jensen is nei­ther. His tone is pitch-per­fect, the deliv­ery is easy and thought­ful: a bal­ance craft­ed, no doubt, over decades of pod­cast­ing and vodcasting.

In such a brief for­mat there’s a dan­ger, too, of sound­ing glib. But Jensen war­rants him­self against that. He proofs his own advice by expos­ing his pho­tog­ra­phy prac­tice in a free, on-line col­lec­tion of PDF book­lets in a series named “Koko­ro” where we can observe what use he makes of the ideas he dis­cuss­es in the videos. We see it works, for him anyway.

Then Jensen is care­ful to insin­u­ate his views; not to force them on his audi­ence. The title of the col­lec­tion, “Here’s a Thought”, sug­gests that each essay is no more than an off-hand remark: a throw-away. This is cal­cu­lat­ed mis­di­rec­tion, of course. Each 2‑minute-or-so talk is, in real­i­ty, a small jew­el of pre­sen­ta­tion with a close­ly-fit­ted struc­ture. It fol­lows an arch from title to expo­si­tion, usu­al­ly backed by rem­i­nis­cence, anec­dote or exam­ple, to a dis­cus­sion often with coun­ter­point lead­ing to a final peri­od that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a conclusion.

There are sto­ries about famous pho­tog­ra­phers he has known or stud­ied; ideas he has gath­ered from read­ing or music or from study­ing images as an edi­tor or review­er. There are sto­ries about his suc­cess­es and against him­self; sto­ries about oth­er artists and what we should learn from oth­er arts: from the nov­el, for exam­ple, or jazz. There are lots of jokes — often on him — at which he laughs him­self. There are a few grouch­es. The pace is relaxed, which is a lot hard­er than it sounds when you have only a minute or so to make your point. But there are no gaps; no stum­bling or forgetfulness.

Of course, Jensen knows his mate­r­i­al very well. In these videos he is recy­cling, and even dou­bling-up, on his own library. An hour or two spent at Lenswork.com is enough to turn up many sim­i­lar ideas in dif­fer­ent for­mats. The site hosts stacks of videos, mono­graphs, e‑books and copies of Lenswork Mag­a­zine, to which he con­tributed edi­to­ri­als, going back to the ear­ly 1990s. His e‑books alone (“Sin­gle Expo­sures” 1–3, “Let­ting Go of the Cam­era” and “The Cre­ative Life in Pho­tog­ra­phy”) offer scores of short essays on pret­ty much the same top­ics as he cov­ers in his cur­rent series. The books, in turn, bor­row from the tran­script of hun­dreds of audio pod­casts Jensen made between 2006 to 2010. Even some of his ear­li­est Lenswork mag­a­zine edi­to­ri­als still get a run. For exam­ple, some­where in the last few months of “Here’s a Thought” — I can’t seem to find it right now — Jensen men­tions learn­ing from the work of Joni Mitchell. A quick search of the LensWork site turns up an edi­to­r­i­al with the same title in the 9th edi­tion of Lenswork — pub­lished in the Spring of 1995.

Moon at Mount Ina­ba (Inabaya­ma no tsu­ki) from “100 Aspects of the Moon”

So what is some­thing like Brooks Jensen’s project as an art work?

About nine months into the project (#313 in Jan­u­ary, 2020), Jensen talks about a mas­ter-work of Yoshi­toshi Tsukio­ka, last of the great Ukiyo‑e (wood­block print) artists. Yoshitoshi’s “One Hun­dred Aspects of the Moon”: a series of dra­mat­ic, lyri­cal prints was pub­lished as a book in the last years of his life. Most of the prints fea­ture an image of the Moon, as the title indi­cates, but — this is Jensen’s point — not all of them. Eleven of the 100 show no Moon because one aspect of the Moon is that it sways peo­ple, events, even oceans when its orb is invis­i­ble. Jensen reminds us, with this sto­ry, that the sub­ject of a pho­to­graph is not nec­es­sar­i­ly what we see in the pho­to­graph. It’s a beau­ti­ful exam­ple of an impor­tant and sub­tle point.

Although Jensen’s and Yoshitoshi’s projects have dif­fer­ent scopes and a very dif­fer­ent audi­ence, Here’s a Thought is a lit­tle like the Ukiyo‑e book for its dis­ci­plined focus, vari­ety and con­sis­tent nar­ra­tive style. A hun­dred images (or going-on-400 videos) with the same small dimen­sions, pub­lished in a com­pact time-frame, fit with­in a titled series but each dis­tinct from every other. 

Both of the authors, I guess, have more at stake than just the sales. But, hap­pi­ly for us, the Here’s A Thought videos, although less spec­tac­u­lar, are also a won­der­ful achieve­ment, often more fun, and cer­tain­ly more prac­ti­cal than Yoshitoshi’s prints.

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