Paris Photo, 2011

I spent three glorious days in Paris, France, at Paris Photo 2011, the annual international photography fair, held this year at the Grand Palais. I looked at thousands of photographs (I began counting because I thought it would be an interesting statistic, but stopped counting at 2133 images) displayed in 117 galleries from 23 countries.  On the plane home, reflecting on my trip, I concluded that a) Paris is still my favorite city and b) to master photography you have to look at a lot of photographs and whenever possible, look at them as prints on the wall, not as low res jpegs on a computer screen or images in a book.

David Akore, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010

David Akore, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010

So if you want to elevate your work to the next level, you need to see and study great photographs.  You need to stand in front of the image as long as it takes until you understand what the photographer intended. That understanding will never be as complete if you only see the image on your computer or in a book. Seeing a Massimo Vitale seascape in a book is interesting and the highlights seem a bit hot. When you stand in front of the print you see that the highlights are really blown out (technique teaches you how to do it) and because he prints large, they become so painfully bright that you almost want to reach for your sunglasses.  Then you understand why he does it. This is simply not evident in a book or on a computer screen.

Pieter Hugo, a South African photographer, has been photographing the people who work in an expansive dump of obsolete electronic technology on the outskirts of a slum known as Agbogbloshie, in Ghana. The dump is the repository of discarded electronics mostly from developed Western countries that produce about 50 million tons of digital waste, 75% of which is not recycled responsibly and ends up in these dumps.  In this project, titled, Permanent Error, Hugo photographs the boys who survive by burning off the plastic coatings on these electronic devices to extract the copper and other useful metals, but to do this, they breathe the smoke, which contains high concentrations of lead, mercury, thallium and hydrogen cyanide.

Viewing a low res jpeg of one of the images (posted here) titled, David Akore, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana (2010) pales in comparison to standing in front of it, printed an almost life size five feet by five feet, and hung at eye level so the boy is looking directly at you. As you study the image, noting the fires in the background and the dark smoke wafting around Akore, you swear that your chest is tightening and that you can smell the acrid smoke. And then, if you have a conscience, you glance down at your new snazzy new iPhone 4GS (that you’ve just taken out of your bag to snap a photo of this image) and wonder did you really needthe 4GS and what actually happened to the G4 or 3GS that you sent off for “recycling.”

So, my tip for mastering photography is rather than taking another class or workshop, plan a looking-at-photography vacation.  If you can swing Paris, do Paris Photo.  It’s always in November and you will return inspired.  Or if international travel isn’t in your budget, plan a trip to New York City, and embark on a few days of gallery hopping.  You can check out what will be in the galleries at or