The Lesser Photographer by CJ Chilvers – a particularly sage photography book

The lesser photographer, a book by CJ Chilvers, is a reorganised and edited compendium of thoughts about photography taken from his blog. I suppose you could call it tips, or maybe advice, but that feels like an injustice to it. It’s more sage than those words sum up – it feels more wise, less contrived, less derivative and much less prescriptive than most of what you’ll otherwise read about photography. Of course, it is just the reflections of an individual, so of course you can take it or leave it like anything else you might read – if you’re anything like me, though, I expect you’d enjoy it quite a bit!

CJ contacted me about the book in the run up to the release of its latest edition. He was aware of 35mmc and whilst he thought that we personally might not agree on everything, he was of the mind that the film photography community 35mmc is a part of was doing quite a lot that questioned the commonly found conventional wisdoms of modern photography. As such, through the acknowledgment that the content of his book wasn’t exactly main stream, he felt that the 35mmc audience might be open to some of the themes he touches upon within it. He sent me a few paragraphs to see if I agreed – I did! In fact, it seemed quite evident to me that it was going to be right up my street. When I told him this, he said he’d like to send me a copy to read and possibly review. Of course, I agreed.

The book has sat in my camera cabinet since. I don’t usually keep books in there, but it’s nice and small and with the chapters being as short as they are, it allowed me to pick it up once in a while when otherwise going into the cabinet to select a camera. I’d probably read most of it by the time I sat down to read it cover-to-cover over Christmas, but reading it in such a linear way, rather than just dipping in, was definitely worth it!

A Lesser Photographer starts with an introduction from CJ that talks about a moment he had when out photo-hiking with a friend and a whole stack of expensive camera equipment. Whilst out, they bumped into two other photographers who had a bunch ok similarly expensive gear that they too were lugging around with them. They stopped and began a conversation between them about their respective cameras and lenses. After a few minutes CJ apparently had a moment of realisation – they were in beautiful surroundings with lots of amazing photography kit, talking about cameras, and not actually using them.

CJ writes about realising the folly in what they were doing, subsequently backing out of the conversation, and then starting to take photos of his surroundings. He reflects that this moment was to become the start of a new path in his photography. He soon sold all of his kit and replaced it with an inexpensive point & shoot. As such, in the eyes of other photographers, he became “a lesser photographer”, which is of course where the title of his book comes from.

The book itself is made up of lots of very short chapters – none more than a page or so. They are organised within the book in such a way that they flow from theme to theme. It covers ideas around kit, the photography industry, why and how people share their advice, learning, unlearning, honesty in photography, inspiration, experience and being true to ones self.

Whilst a lot is covered within the book, the overall theme is one that questions the conventional wisdoms that are often found regurgitated by many other photographers and publishers of photography themed content. Each chapter takes a little chunk out of the normalised perspectives on modern photography and – in a fairly positive way – questions them, and often provides alternative insights. The beauty of the content – at least from my perspective – is that none of it feels too prescriptive. To me, it doesn’t come across as an attempt to tell the reader how or what to think or how to act. It doesn’t come across as patronising or hubris, instead it’s self-aware, and written with what I think feels like rare humility.

CJ was wrong about something though, as I said at the beginning of the post, when he contacted me he assumed we might not see eye-to-eye when it comes to some of our opinions. In reality, there is very little, if anything, contained within its pages that I find remotely disagreeable. It’s true that our approach might be slightly different, but I like to think we share core principles when it comes to our broader views about photography and photographers… I just might have a few more cameras than he does… HA!

If none of the above was enough to encourage you to read/buy the book, CJ has given me permission to share a few sentences – here are just a few that caught my attention:

“What defines a perfect photo is entirely up to you”

“The snapshot is the medium for some of the most important pictures in history.”

“The mark of a great design is a camera that looks better after hard years of use because it hits a sweet spot for its user between constraint and utility”

“Tips are just stifling pellets of reassurance.”

“Creativity is always enhanced by constraint.”

“Emotions are not measurable in print size or pixels.”

“The print isn’t the end product of your photography. Neither is the screen. The end product is the joy of being present when photographing.”

“The real value in photography is an appreciation of the present.”

“Few people follow your work. Even fewer care. What are you doing with that freedom?”

And if none of that is enough to entice you into reading/buying his book, then you might just be reading the wrong blog too 😉
You can find links to buy it on CJ’s site here

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6 thoughts on “The Lesser Photographer by CJ Chilvers – a particularly sage photography book”

  1. I have read CJ’s many photography-related blog posts over the years. The challenge I had with his writing is that it was VERY lacking in specifics but also had no examples. CJ refuses to publish any of his work. The book reads as though CJ has read a bunch of other books and summarised ideas found elsewhere. I don’t get the sense of his work. Ultimately my approach to photograph (see, do, fail, repeat) did not fit with his approach.

    1. Lacking in specifics is what’s good about it. What purpose would examples serve to such high level ideas?
      At the end of the day, not everyone will agree with him, me, you, etc. For me the ideas are much less common than what’s ordinarily shared – perhaps I’m reading the wrong content though

    1. Everyone has to make a living, and actually, if you read the content you would likely find it to be quite self-aware

  2. A good reminder of why we make photographs in the first place. For ourselves. Lovely short lessons on our photography, art or ‘work’. Worth the modest investment in my opinion, for what it’s worth.

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