Through a Lens Brightly


I have been taking photographs for most of my adult life. With no technical knowledge of f-stops, apertures, or how to work with light and shadow, I have still stumbled into taking some fine pictures. A nice camera, the right moment, and blind good luck. There have been enough successes for me to ignore the fact that most of what I shoot is all wrong (someone told me that for a single article in National Geographic, thirty thousand pictures are taken, so I have plenty of company), but one day it got to the point where I could no longer bear not understanding what I was doing right.

How does my favorite picture of my son, age two, sitting in a friend’s lap, work? Both are perfectly in focus-you can see Jenny’s earring swaying-while the background is all blurred and soft. How did I get that effect? Why does one view from our rooftop terrace look so flat and boring while the same scene shot from a different vantage point is evocative and mysterious? Why does the light falling at one angle cast a contemplative glow on the subject while at another it casts shadows so dark only the whites of the eyes show?

As so often happens in life, my need to learn the answers to these questions coincided with the arrival of a teacher. Edmund Cluett, a Renaissance man if ever there was one, has been a volunteer in our organization, along with his wife, Angie, since July. Among his many gifts, Edmund is the most talented...

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.