The Image Is The Thing

Don Giannatti
7 min readJul 17, 2022

Photographs are the main objective of photography… right?

Salton Sea, California

I hear people say they want to be a photographer and I wonder if they know exactly what they are saying?

Being a photographer and occasionally taking photographs are not the same thing. No offense is being made against the casual amateur or ‘shutterbug’ who loves the activity, but activity is not the defining factor. For me, at least.

“Being” a photographer.

Does it mean that you now have a top-of-the-line camera?
Does it mean a bag of lenses?
Does it mean an awesome set of studio lights?
Or a light meter?

Nope. Sorry, none of those things mean a damn as to whether you are a photographer or not. What matters is that you make photographs. Images. Snaps… whatever you want to call them. And you make them from a place of must.

I have been asked many times why I take photographs, and photography so seriously?

I take photographs because I have to. I MUST make images. I get hollow when I don’t. I take them for me, mostly, but I spent a lifetime making them for other people. In as many cases as I could, I tried to do both.

Photography is curiosity with a capture tool, it is a life lived in nanoseconds, it is light, shadow, emotion, and strength of purpose.

That’s what it means to BE a photographer.

And the emphasis for photographers is the making of and viewing of their images.

The goal line is the image.
The product is the image.
The whole enchilada is the image!

And I am not sure that we are all on the same page with that.

Look, I love to ‘make’ images. Working with lights, being in the studio with booms and stands and all that those tools entail is a thrill. I love to work on making a photograph.

But it is the photograph that is the ultimate thrill. The image that was created, not the effort that went into its creation.

I remember being at a workshop with Bret Weston. It was an exquisite time for me… 8x10 Deardorff and a stack of film holders at the ready. We were at a small beach near Carmel and it dawned on me that we were where Edward had made some of his most incredible images.

We spent considerable time in the environment first. Before anything else, we looked. We looked in order to see.

Slot Canyon, Utah

Before we make the image, we have to “see” the image. That ability to find the photograph in a full 360-degree scene is quite difficult when you are used to only looking through the camera when taking photographs. And we were asked to ‘see’ as a camera in order to find the image we wanted to make before seeing it through the camera.

I will say that the ability to do that was not won on the beach that day. But it indeed was won over several years of shooting and seeing and seeing then shooting. I look at the world much as a camera would now before bringing it out into the world.

I still occasionally refer to it as pre-visualization, although Ansel Adams rightly noted that was a term that was redundant. Visualization is what it was. To add the ‘pre’ was to allude to the visualization twice.

No matter, I am stuck in the redundant of the redundancy of pre-visualization so if you hear me say that at some point, you can be aware that I am aware of the redundancy of saying it that way. Sorry, Ansel. I’m working on it.

The goal of the visualization is to take the camera out of the equation for a bit and be deliberate in the choices to be made. Of course, serendipity arises, and one can certainly make changes with the camera at the ready, but in many ways, the deliberate choice becomes the correct choice over time.

We become the master of the tools, not at their mercy. We choose to make the photograph we see, not the photograph that simply appears in the viewfinder.

In other words, a photographer is a photographer even without the camera, because they are always visualizing the photograph that would be taken.

Abandoned Motel, Gila Bend, Arizona

That is one of the traits of being a photographer… it is your calling, and part of your identity.

After a wonderful morning at the beach in Carmel (which included a berating from Mr. Weston with the most colorful choice of four lettered terms) we returned to the studio to process our images.

I had taken eight sheets of film with me and had managed to expose only four.

Processing and printing took a little over two hours and the rest of the afternoon was spent pouring over each of the student’s work. My berating still stung, but the subtle compliments paid me by Mr. Weston took most of the pain away.

Imagine a workshop where the taking of the images is but one small part of the day, and the viewing of, dissecting of, criticizing of, and joyously immersion of the imagery was the greater.

We convened in a little room at a motel, images in hand, and talked about composition and light. We compared prints to see how putting the subject in different areas actually gave it different contexts and different relationships to the surroundings. And, more importantly, different relationships with the viewers. We looked at how exposure could change the mood of the shot as well as create an emotion — intended or not.

Framing, light, shadow, and viewpoint were discussed in length. We spoke into the night and slept with dreams of images, tripods, and Dektol…

I would suggest such a workshop today would be somewhat difficult to sell. The emphasis in many circles seems to be more on other things, the taking/making of the image, not the image itself. “How do I do it” becomes the main question when “what will I end up with” should be.

And that is simply gear fascination rather than the power of the image.

Cactus at my home, Phoenix, Arizona

There are noted exceptions of course. Jorg Colberg’s wonderful Consciencious Magazine for one. I do not always agree with him, but he always makes me think about imagery. And thinking about photographs, looking at photographs, and understanding photographs are one of the most important things a photographer should do when not actually making photographs.

I believe, anyway.

John Szarkowski wrote a book entitled “Looking At Photographs” in 1973. This was a seminal book for this newest of art forms. I suggest you pick up a copy and spend some intimate moments with great photographs (at least taken previously to 1973).

Here is a link to a video discussing Szarkowski and his work. It is super well done and I think you will enjoy it.

No discussion of camera gear can hold a candle to the actual examination of the images produced by those cameras.

The image is the culmination of all that we experience in our lives, and how we bring those experiences into the medium of the photograph. The photograph gives us context for our vision and we give the photograph its own context with our experiences.

Shared experiences and personal experiences are the basis for the extraordinary image that we strive to make with our cameras. Whether they are iPhones, P&S’s, ‘entry-level DSLRs’, or extraordinarily expensive professional tools, the end product is a two-dimensional ‘glyph’ captured with the personal context and values of the photographer.

The most successful of them are created with a deliberateness that is unfathomable to most beginning practitioners, even if they are shot in an instant of a moment. The seeming grab-shot can be as deliberate an image as the most constructed tripod-mounted view camera shot.

The synapses are simply firing quickly, and the vision is the driving factor. The time it took to make the shot is of no consequence to the emotion it evokes in the viewer. The image must stand on its own.

Retro Shot: Test, Chicago, Illinois, on Polaroid B&W Transparency

I love photography. I love photographs even more.

If I could no longer make them, I would immerse myself in the best of them made by others. They are precious to me. Always have been, and I see no waning in my intense love affair with the photographic image.

How about you?

Look at photographs.
Print photographs.
Put photographs all around you.
LIVE with photography.
Live as a photographer.

BE a photographer.

It sure is an interesting life.

I am a photographer, designer, and photo editor. You can find me at my self-named website or at Project 52 Pro System where I teach commercial photography online. This is our tenth year of teaching, and it is the most unique online class you will find anywhere.

You can find my books on Amazon, and I have taught two classes at CREATIVELIVE.

Don Giannatti

Designer. Photographer. Author. Entrepreneur: Loving life at 100MPH. I love designing, making photographs and writing.