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Curious Frame Issue #19 - Photography is Magic part 1

Curious Frame
Curious Frame Issue #19 - Photography is Magic part 1
By Leanne Staples • Issue #19 • View online
Photography serves so many purposes in our day-to-day lives that we don’t really pay most of it much attention. A large portion of the photography that we consume on a regular basis is merely utilitarian. It is designed to attract our attention and for us to buy something. It’s fast food consumerism.

We now spend so much time reviewing the photos that we just took that we lose the element of chance and magic. Sometimes a photo is capable of creating imagination not only by the viewer but also by the photographer who took it. This happens when we are able to get lost in it.

It’s easy to get hung up on the technical aspects of the camera and also the composition in shooting. But have you ever thought about the magic in what you have captured or what another photographer has captured?

Magic in photography is the subject of this issue. When was the last time that you had a feeling of the magic in photography either in viewing or taking it? I look forward to hearing about your experiences of this. If you have any photos that you would like to share about magic that’s good too!
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Readers comments:
Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.
Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required. Comments below are from Issue 18 Women & Photography
One reader wrote:
Women in photography … I don’t think I ever thought about it specifically because I admire a lot of brilliant photographers. I don’t really like to think separately like men and women, white, black or yellow…
But as you got me thinking about it, I can say that during the time I worked in the press and then in advertising photography, there were many more men than women!
Nowadays, after the advance that digital photography has brought about in the world together with its popularization on social networks, the number of women who became interested in photography has exploded and today I find it difficult to say whether there are more men or women photographing.
Thanks for your comment on women in photography. There isn’t just one answer or method of looking at any of the issues discussed in Curious Frame.
Photography is Magic
Walking Up Broadway, New York City, 10 February 2021
Walking Up Broadway, New York City, 10 February 2021
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. Søren Kierkegaard

Photography is magic on many levels and if we slow down a bit we may be able to discover or rediscover some of the magic that exists both in shooting and viewing photos. 

To those who first witnessed the camera, this new object and also a physical photo, it was seen either seen as magic or a creation of the devil. But that’s before our time.

We tend to take photography for granted and for the most part, we have lost the ability to see the magic in photography. Both the idea that there is a tool that can capture an image and seeing the results of that image after the fact are rather magic when I stop and think about it. 
David Bailey - John Lennon, Eyes Closed, 1965.
David Bailey - John Lennon, Eyes Closed, 1965.
In photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary. David Bailey

I have written in the past about slow photography both in shooting and viewing it. To get to a place where we can actually shoot and/or see photography as magic we will likely need to go back to a place when we were very young.

The magic mostly has to do with our personal relationship to photography and our life experiences and not so much about the impersonal images that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. 

A photo can jog our memory of a person, place or time like the above photo of John Lennon. I’m not certain that I actually saw this photo while he was alive. Even so, there is a magic to this photo and the fact that his eyes are closed and the photo is close-up really creates a kind of magic.

It is very possible that part of the magic of this photo for me, has to do with who it is. Seeing the magic in a photo will be different for everyone encountering it. A photograph is always already in the past. So our memories can also influence how we see it.
Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, circa 1980.
Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, circa 1980.
I photograph to see what something will look like photographed. Garry Winogrand

I have wondered on a number of occasions about the above quote by Garry Winogrand. It’s such an uncomplicated thought that it’s easy to gloss over it as if it isn’t really important. The act of shooting and viewing was two different things.

If we already know exactly what a photo will look like before we take it, would we take it anyway? There is an anticipation when taking a photo that there could be something special there. That could be seen as a form of magic in photography

There’s something ethereal and magical about the above photo by Winogrand. There’s an action going on outside of the frame that we are unable to see, while we are witnessing this woman viewing it. It’s as if we are in on a kind of secret.

A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know. Diane Arbus

A secret is possibly another form of magic. Perhaps I should pause here and state that I am not referring to magic done by magicians or witches. Magic can also mean seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.

There was a bigger sense of magic in the days of only film photography because we never knew what a photo would look like until it was developed and printed. Imagination and anticipation of photos taken have been lost in the world of digital photography.
Diane Arbus - Seated female impersonator with arms crossed on her bare chest, N.Y.C., 1960 Gelatin silver print
Diane Arbus - Seated female impersonator with arms crossed on her bare chest, N.Y.C., 1960 Gelatin silver print
 I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them. Diane Arbus

There was also the sense that in the days before digital photography, you could capture a photo that no one else could. It was as if you could take a photo that would last through time whether it was known by the masses or just a small group. It was unique and maybe historic. 

Photography can transport you into a different place and time and cause you to see the world in a very new way. Magic opens your eyes and your mind and photography is an excellent medium for experiencing a form of magic.
Philippe Halsman, Robert Oppenheimer Jumping, 1958.
Philippe Halsman, Robert Oppenheimer Jumping, 1958.
Like a good book or a film, a photograph can cause us to forget everything going on around us, to grab our attention, to draw us into the story. This photo of Robert Oppenheimer always brings a smile to my face.

Magic, for me, is both in shooting and in viewing photographs when I am able to forget my self. To go beyond the workings of the conscious mind that eats up much of our waking and probably sleeping day.

When it comes to the magic in shooting photography, it’s possible that we can call it flow, also referred to as being in the zone. It’s about being in the moment rather than trying to direct or control that which is going on around you.
Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960
Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960
Magic in photography can occur in poetic photos as I wrote about in Issue 17. It can also be found in those images that we categorize as art which I wrote about in Issue 15.

Magic in photography for the purposes of this issue are photos that we in our current modern age can get lost in. Images that transport us out of ourselves if only for a brief moment in time.

When we can leave ourselves behind for a time to wonder at a photo as I do when I see the above photo by Saul Leiter, I call that magic. In part, because of the nuance, the lack of specificity of the photo. There is room for you to fill in the blanks.

When a photo can mean something different to each person who sees it and it can provide a window into seeing the world in a different light, I suggest that that is a form of magic. It starts with using your imagination.
Harry Callahan, Providence, 1977
Harry Callahan, Providence, 1977
But we should not confuse photos that are merely eye candy and grab our attention momentarily in this category. Photos that are magic either leave an impression in our mind as an image and/or as a feeling that sticks with us for a long time.

To see the magic in a photo requires that we give it our attention long enough that it will hold us in its grip. Stop and look at a photo and see if it manages to grab your attention. I look at the above photo by Harry Callahan and there’s a story there. It’s not my story. But I can imagine it. I can be transported into a different world.
portraits in (de)construction 1, New York City, August 2018.
portraits in (de)construction 1, New York City, August 2018.
In our world of overstimulation and cultural attention deficit disorder, it is a good thing to both slow down in shooting and viewing photography. There is always more there than the thin layer of the facade. The magic is out there if you give it your attention.

In the second part of magic in photography, we will go on a journey in the past before our lifetimes. The definition of magic in photography takes on different meanings for every generation. I look forward to hearing about your experiences with the magic of photography.
Further Viewing:
Diane Arbus - (GOP #8) Secret of the best photographers ever
Diane Arbus - (GOP #8) Secret of the best photographers ever
I only just discovered this YouTube channel and I must say that Alex Kilbee manages to provide a good take on the work of Diane Arbus in under 11 minutes. Listen to how he pronounces her name. I heard many years ago that it is pronounced like Dion.
Reading list:
  • Carroll, Henry. Photographers on Photography: How The Masters See, Think & Shoot, Laurence King Publishing, 2018.
  • Findlay, Michael. Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art, Prestel Publishing, 2017.
  • Flusser, Vilém. Toward a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Books Ltd., 1983.
  • Freund, Gisèle. Photography & Society, The Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd., 1980.
  • Levi Strauss, David. Photography and Belief, David Zwirner Books 2020.
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Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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