Commentary # 48: March 2011
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THE Most Important Lesson in Photography

March 2011

- by Craig Wassel

Like all photographers, there are questions I am asked regularly: “What is the best camera?” “Do you shoot digital or film?” “Do you still shoot film?” “Which is better?” “Do you ‘Photoshop’ your photos?” “Are you a professional?” “Where did you learn photography?” “How long have you been doing this?”

All can be good questions, and all can have useful answers.

Then there is this question, which is not asked quite as often, but which I believe is the very best and important of them all:

“What is the most important lesson in photography?”

Now, DON’T CHEAT and skip to the bottom. Stay with me as I build background to my admittedly very subjective answer. That background and my answer is the sole subject and the soul subject of this month’s commentary.

The background to begins with “where did I learn photography?”, and that was from my father. He was a businessman by day, but a talented freelance artist in several mediums. He could draw, paint, and sculpt, and what he really loved to do in his later years was carve waterfowl out of wood. I was never able to do all that, so that talent must skip a generation since my three kids seem to be able to draw better than I can. What I was able to do, though, was make photographs. I began learning from him at age 11 using an all-manual 35mm rangefinder camera, a light meter, and nothing but Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film. He had converted the coal room in the basement of our old stucco house into a darkroom, and that is where he taught me the lessons of light, processing, color theory, enlarging, composition, and much more.

I spent a lot of time in high school shooting sports, and was photography editor for the yearbook when I was a sophmore. Back then, my family used to go to time trials for the Indianapolis 500 almost every year, and I loved shooting motor sports. Really, though, I enjoyed photographing anything and everything. Regrettably, my passion for photography fell dormant as tennis (and interest in the fairer sex) became more important to me.

Nearly 20 years passed, which changes much in a life. I was off the tennis courts, happily married with a son, and with an established second career. My interest in photography was rekindling, and with a happy family life not well suited to long hours in a darkroom, the advances of digital photography were coming at a great time. In early 2005, I became friends with a photographer from Venezuela. He saw some of my old work and some of my new casual shooting, and he immediately and strongly encouraged me to pick up the camera again and start shooting seriously. Maybe he was right; maybe it was time.

Another change in my life was that my parents had recently retired and relocated just north of New Orleans. When they did, I strongly encouraged my dad to get back to doing what he really loved: his wood carving of waterfowl. We talked several times about establishing an eBay storefront as a retirement business he would truly love. More changes of the unplanned kind were in store though, as Katrina would hit New Orleans in late August of 2005.

Katrina was the most dramatic life changing event for everyone in my family. I could not even begin to tell the whole story here, and I could literally write a screenplay about everything that happened. You can read about just some of it here, but the completely abridged version is I lost my father in an unlikely automobile accident that happened when he and my mother were evacuating from Katrina.

While clearing my parents’ Louisiana home of my father's affects, my mother sent me up into the attic to get something for her. It may have been clothes; I don’t exactly remember. But what I will always remember is the first thing I found upon lifting the hatch to the attic and turning on the light. Sitting there in an un-opened box was a brand new professional woodcarving kit my father bought. He had plans, but he ran out of time. It hit me hard, and taught me a huge life lesson.

So if you have not guessed yet what the most important lesson in photography is, here it is: Don’t wait.

It’s that simple. If you have the passion to make photographs – whether for your own enjoyment or for a business or both – don’t wait. Don’t wait until you are out of school. Don’t wait until your kids are out of school. Don’t wait until you can buy a better camera. Don’t wait until you take lessons. Don’t wait until you retire. Don't wait until anything.

Don’t wait.

If you have the passion, everything else will follow. The lessons, the learning, the practice, the time, the knowledge, the experience, the photographs, the equipment, and everything else will come. They will find their way to you and you will find your way to them, and the only thing you will not find is that you ran out of time.

Don’t wait.

". . . If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it's as though I've neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up . . ."

~ Robert Mapplethorpe ~

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" . . . In early 2005, I became friends with a photographer from Venezuela. I showed him some of my old work and some of my new casual shooting, and he immediately and strongly encouraged me to pick up the camera again and start shooting seriously. Maybe he was right; maybe it was time. . . . "

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