#1175. The Photographer or the Photograph: Which Comes First?

By Claude Fiddler | Opinion

Mar 03

That is a vague and ambiguous question, I know. I’ll attempt to answer the question by saying something about how I came to making photographs and eventually pictures.


I started like so many with the photography class in school. The alchemy of seeing an image appear in the darkroom tray was magic. And then there was my emotional reaction and attachment to the magic of a print and the subject of the photo. In my mind I could recreate the circumstances when I took the photo, but the ability of the photo to elicit a response with an audience was a hit or miss proposition. That didn’t matter to me at the beginning of making photos. The process itself was amazing enough.

But there was the rarified air of Ansel Adams photos that I became more aware of.


I had the chance to study Ansel Adams photographs in the Lodge Dining Room in Yosemite. I was a rock-climber, as I have been for most of my life, and the dining room had 50- 20×24 inch Adams’ prints lining the walls. I’d sneak in to look at the work for as long as I did not feel like an unwelcome visitor. The images filled me with an emotional response, as did the presentation of the work. Viewing the work did not inspire me to become a photographer. Rock-climbing was my mistress at the time. But as my time in the mountains took on more importance in my life, and I saw more photos in climbing magazines, and elsewhere, I wanted to try to connect what I felt with a photo.

The adventure in my life that changed my life was a 211-mile winter ski of the John Muir Trail. The trail travels from Mount Whitney in the southern Sierra Nevada to Yosemite Valley. My friend and I spent 33 days making the traverse and I carried my Dad’s 35 mm Kodak camera with the goal of making a trip journal. I’d seen the work of Galen Rowell and I thought the stories he told were compelling. I went to a slide show of Galen’s at the local high school. There were a dozen people in the dark classroom. It did not register with me that this was a tough way to get a message across and that the message required graphics and communication at the same time. What did register was the excitement of the told and displayed story.


I made a photo diary of the John Muir Trail ski trip, did some slide shows, and had fun telling the story. But there was only one photo that distilled the trip for me. There would probably have been more if I knew what I was doing. But the idea that one image distilled the entire trip for me, stuck. From that point on, I wanted to make singular images in much the same way Adams photos affected me.

There was also the fact that looking at my photos from the trip I had hit or missed with composition, or focus, or lighting.

My skills were lacking and that gave me great pause as I started to try to make pictures instead of taking photos.


With the premise of making more meaningful photos I commandeered my Dad’s tripod and started developing the process that has guided my photography to this day. I wandered and looked and thought about possible compositions without making exposures. Here’s where the photographer in me emerged.

More precisely, the person.

I’d always had a fear of failure and as a youngster, would do things like go to a playground to try things I’d seen other kids do, when there was no one around. And the same type of behavior happened with my photography.

I’d look at a possible composition and wonder not, what was right, but what was wrong. Which led to very few photos getting made. Conversely it led to the photos that I did make feeling important. To me at least. And if they failed for some reason I was mortified. My reticence led me to study technical and artistic matters intensely. I looked at the work of Steve Solinsky, Joel Meyerowitz, and Richard Misrach. Over and over trying to figure out what were the components of their images that made them objects of amazement. Pictures.

Formal training, art school, at this point would have helped. But then, maybe not. What I did not do, was try to recreate the work I was studying. I remained wrapped inside my head. I could have used some technical help but even that may have led to paralyzing over-thinking on my part.


It would seem inevitable that I’d pick up a large format camera. The camera operation and my desire for image quality was a fit with the 4×5- inch camera. That this became my primary camera with only one lens for 30 years seemed totally natural. The one exception was my trip to the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1983, where the streets of Kathmandu, the trek to basecamp, and taking pictures at 25,000 feet, were more easily made with a 35 mm camera. I still used a tripod. And I still kept my distance, and set myself apart, in a self-conscious way, from the action. I wanted to consider if a photo would fail or succeed in my comfort zone.

After quite some time large format camera operation became a non-issue. As it turned out, I developed a simple methodology with the 4×5 that instilled great confidence in my ability to set the camera up and make an exposure in very little time. This was important as it freed me up further to work out composing a photo.


One of the best tools I employed to compose was the use of a 4×5 inch viewing card. I get close to my camera and tripod position then fine-tuned the spot with a 4×5 inch presentation cut-out. I still use a card. Even though I use a zoom lens these days I don’t experiment changing focal lengths or changing where I am positioned. I found that making those changes turned my thinking into a back and forth, what about this, what about that, waste of time.

As I am working out a composition, I’m running through the technical questions that may be important. Where to focus chief among them. And reminding myself to check that settings on the camera are correct. Easy with the 4×5. There wasn’t much to the camera. Not so with the modern digital camera. I have always employed exposure bracketing. Always one-half stop under exposure. Blown highlights are my concern.


I also ask myself if the potential image is something important to me. A pleasing composition with exceptional light or a pretty picture of a place is not worth it to me. The composition needs to have strong movement through the frame. If the composition is a simple front to back or a simple symmetry side to side, I need to feel that my camera position reveals something exceptional and does not become a tried, true, and trite photo. I have found that small movements with these types of photos are important. Often referred to as the little bit of something that gives an image the “vision thing”. A great deal of strength can be revealed with deliberate and thoughtful camera position.

In my home range, the Sierra Nevada I worked hard figuring points of view by way of reading maps. Where I might stand to get a view up or down a river drainage, how might I best frame a ridgeline of peaks, how could I anticipate lighting. I still look for and imagine what I will see on my trips through the Sierra Nevada. The topography of the Sierra and the monotone gray of Sierra granite has meant that I make few photos. Even though it is known as the Range of Light there are long stretches of blue cloudless weather where the light is well, boring. But other mountain landscapes have changed the number of potential photos I at least look at. The Brooks Range in Alaska is a landscape with constantly changing light and a labyrinth of mountains. And the Brooks bursts into brilliant fall color. The color is short lived but utterly spectacular. I still don’t make many pictures in the Brooks but there is more to look at photographically than the Sierra.


When I first got to the Brooks in 2004, I was excited by the landscape and light. I was almost frantic about making an image. I quicky realized this was not going to be an easy place to photograph. Big flat expanses of tundra meant there was little in the way of forms and shapes in the landscape. The light changed constantly, and that is what in the end revealed compositions I wanted to make. Pictures in the Brooks still take a lot of time to perfect.

I find it satisfying to know who I am as an artist. I recognize that for me to change my photographs, I must change where I am photographing. My methods and the way I see will be the same, but what is in front of the camera will be something different.


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  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Your two first pictures have that « being  » quality that amazes me… Instant, total immersion.
    Without even mentioning the learning, patience, talent involved, I must admit that I often wonder it if is even possible with 35mm… even with the best bodies and lenses. On my side, I never even approached that, ever… beautiful!

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Totally agree, Pascal – they blew me away – that’s why I thought “he must be using a medium format cam!”. And you don’t really need a $6,000 lens on one of those beasts, to get stunning images like this!

    • 35 mm or another format is quite capable of large formatesque photos. It’s still all about composition and light. among other things of course. I notice that 35 work that does not quite get there has most times missed a crucial fine adjustment of camera to subject relationship. Same mistakes can be made with a 4×5. Hard to get it all put together isn’t it!

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Claude, while that is perfectly true – and I’ve seen stunning examples of it! – there’s something else that happens as you move up from 35mm/FF to MF and – in your case – 4×5.

        The detail in the shadows and highlights is far greater. The risk of washed out highlights and black or noisy shadow areas fades away. The overall effect – WITHOUT any retouching in those areas – is mindblowingly different. And it shows up FAR more in landscapes than it does in most other genres.

        As witness the images you have presented here in the overwhelming majority of these pictures!

        • PaulB says:


          I agree with you. There is something different about starting with a much larger image. As the “Hot Rod” guys say, “There is no replacement, for displacement.”

          In my experience, as your original capture image gets smaller everything needs to be better. This includes the photographer as well as the equipment. Since we really are trying to get 20lbs of stuff into a 5lb. bag. 😉


  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    The chicken – no! – the egg! Ooops – no, it has to be the chicken – otherwise, there’s nobody there to lay the egg, or hatch it!

    Having answered your question in the title, and moved on to the eggs [photos – oops – pictures. WOW! (That’s because they all have the “WOW factor”!) These certainly weren’t shot with your father’s 35mm Kodak camera!

    “the same type of behavior happened with my photography” – yes – quite – I’ve been haunted by that for practically an entire lifetime. But most recently – partly by getting appreciative responses from some of the people I’ve taken portraits for, partly under the influence of Pascal, and partly with Lad’s encouragement, I’ve started at long last to let other people actually see some of my work. And since yours is FAR better than mine, I hope you let the horse run free, a long time ago – a lot earlier than I have.

    I don’t usually do this, Claude – but I had a proper look at these images – enlarging them, so that I could stare them in all their detail – and I am puzzled. How on earth did you get the first one? – it seems to be/have a reflection right across it – and yet how is this so?

    You must have an awful lot more wall space in your house than I do – these need to be enlarged to at least A3 to be enjoyed properly

    • Bonjour Jean Pierre et Merci!

      I am glad you have found a sounding board for your photos. It has been an essential development with my photography to have honest and Insightful !!!! critique made of my work over the years. Not only artistically but technically also. And yes enlargement to 32×40 inches has for a long time been my benchmark for printing.

  • Dave says:

    What a great story and wonderful pictures

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Claude, This is a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) reflective essay with stunning images. I celebrate your process as well as your results–but most of all I celebrate your self-understanding. You have come to terms with yourself in coming to terms with your photography. It’s a most worthy goal for all of us.

  • Jeffrey D. Mathias says:

    Yes, patience… taking the time to understand… what is this photograph to be. Too often an image has been thrown out there maybe with thinking that this was something expected to be given. Even quick photography has had much time in the making. Maybe popularity has something to do with the sea of over stimulus which which could drown the unsuspecting. It seems to take time too for the observer to learn and see. Maybe photography had an advantage starting as a process of labor. Now we have social media to quickly do… what. Claude, I value your suggestion of maybe visiting a landscape with only oneself to gain an understanding of where, when, how and why to place the camera. Even when once ready having the patience to learn so as to anticipate the moment. Nice images of those moments.

    • Thanks Jeffrey. The element of amazement is what I will use to define a picture. I have come to a place in my life where I know that this will only happen, at least for me, and at least with photos, only a few times.

  • PaulB says:


    Thanks for posting your images and telling your story. Both in may ways remind me of myself.

    Looking at your images I see the qualities that moving into large format (LF) gave me. Qualities such as clarity and details that I felt were missing using smaller formats. Like you these are qualities I embraced, and later became obsessed with after my original LF camera was damaged. The replacement cameras and lenses did not bring together the image qualities that my original kit gave me.

    There is an old saying in photography that you never really learn photography until you use large format. This was certainly true for me. The large ground glass and the upside down and backwards image gave me an abstracted presentation that really let me look at the scene and see what was there. Even though I now practice “street” photography more than landscape, the lessons learned under the dark cloth are still used. Plus I still enjoy working from a tripod and composing my image on the camera’s rear screen, even if it is a little small.


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