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How does one become a better photographer? To find the answer I decided to ask industry veteran Gerald Ratto. For over half a century Gerald has used film photography to capture the world. Gerald is a former student of Ansel Adams, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston; the list of industry legends he has worked with is extensive. His work has been displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and his client list includes some of the largest architectural firms in the world.
Gerald has worked with film since he was 12 and began photographing with a 15-cent box camera. Many of his most celebrated images (See his Children of the Fillmore and Vintage Collections) were shot traditionally. I began by inquiring about what differences exists between photographing with film and digital.
“Photography is really about seeing. We are in an age where people confuse photography with image capturing. When you hold up your phone or high megapixel camera are you really being a photographer? I don’t know. That depends on how intentional you are in the process. It’s easy to capture a huge amount of space today and then use Photoshop to retroactively tell a story, but something is lost in that process. You can make adjustments in Photoshop but you lose some of the expression because you didn’t really consider the content and the story that is being told.”
Is there any correlation between the physical developing process and the creation of an authentic photograph?
“Developing isn’t really a huge part of the process because of previsualization; seeing the story in your mind before you capture it with a camera. If you are doing it right you already know what the story is once you capture it. Then, it’s about going through a process to bring it from a small format to something people can see and display. Each camera is really the same. Each is simply a different instrument. If your process is the same then you can use different instruments to more accurately tell the story.”
Herein I realized the error of my initial question. The question is really not of whether we gain or lose something using film or digital methods, the question is how we remain intentional in an age where technology removes our limits. What are we doing as photographers to keep our content intentional and relevant?
I ask what advice Gerald can provide for how to stay relevant as a photographer.
“Photography is like discovery; every time you look in the viewfinder you’re closing in on an image that is part of something bigger—a little vignette of the greater world. You don’t want to go into any project with preconceived notions of what you are going to capture because by doing that you impose yourself upon the subject. Authenticity is the key to staying relevant. Allow the subject to tell the story and use your mastery of the instrument to capture it.”
Gerald’s work over the last 50 years showcases many different thematic elements; a testament to the depth of his abilities as photographer. I encourage you to take a look at Gerald’s portfolios and pay special attention to his mastery of light. From architecture models to portraiture, Gerald’s work showcases the breadth of his abilities as a photographer. As we finish up I ask Gerald what his favorite photo is. He smiles and replies, “The one I’m taking tomorrow.”
Gerald Ratto and his wife Marla manage a studio and reside in San Francisco, CA. You can view more of his work on his liveBooks site; www.geraldrattophotography.com.
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