Photography

Writing With Light

WADE DAVIS

, and was Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society for thirteen years. He divides his time between Washington, DC, Vancouver and the Stikine Valley of northern British Columbia.



When I was a college senior a brilliant and irreverent photographer, Tod Papageorge, later director of the graduate photography department at Yale for three decades, came to Harvard as a visiting artist to teach an advanced seminar. It was designed only for those few highly accomplished photographers who had majored in visual studies and intended to work as professionals in the field.

In no way did I qualify, but by good fortune several of the young photographers were close friends and they essentially obliged Papageorge to accept me in the class, if only to provide entertainment value. And that was about all I could come up with for the first weeks of term. But Papageorge was an inspired teacher, in good measure because he had no interest in soliciting student opinion about anything. Each week he projected on the screen the work of the masters and for two hours, without pause, he explained why a photograph was good. He did not tolerate discussion and thus the atmosphere of the class was mercifully uncluttered by idle opinion. His laser insights went right to the source and like the photographs themselves became indelibly imprinted on the emulsion sheet of one’s mind. I can still see Atget’s Paris in the morning mist, the raw urban notes of Robert Frank, the timeless landscapes of Ansel Adams that led Henri Cartier-Bresson in frustration to lament during the 1940s that the entire world was falling apart and Ansel was still taking pictures of stones. “You are writing with light,” Papageorge would proclaim; “go and find something to say.”

After weeks of frustration I went to Virginia over spring break and found, in the shadows of a landscape, something magical and moving. I returned and showed Papageorge my images. Something had happened. Somehow I had got it right. It was not about talent or skill or raw creativity. It was about listening and seeing and paying attention.

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