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How An Essay By Ernst Haas Reminds Us Why We Photograph

Learn what a master from the film era has to say about why we love to shoot photos

Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. © Amy Touchette

In 1983, Eastman Kodak published The Joy of Photography, a book billed as “a guide to the tools and techniques of better photography.” In it was a special portfolio by photographer Ernst Haas, along with words he had written in 1979.

I remember coming across the book a few years ago while waiting for prints to dry in a darkroom in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was part of the darkroom’s book collection, and as retro and somewhat irrelevant as it looked, given the massive changes the medium had undergone since 1983—namely the digital revolution—I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the title.

Photography is a lifeline of sorts for me. I discovered it after an intense brush with my own mortality. I was looking to fill a giant hole in my life, and when I realized photography was very capable of filling that hole, I held onto it for dear life (and still do). I could feel its power, its ability to infuse meaning into even the most seemingly trivial or common experiences.

When I read Haas’ words in The Joy of Photography, what I had felt so strongly but had yet to articulate about my deep love for photography was made plainly clear. Photography “is only a step to seeing and enjoying more without a camera,” Haas writes. He continues:

“For me, photography is joy, yet joy is not identical with happiness. In life, as in photography, joy is a most contagious force, one that can heighten all your senses—seeing, listening, smelling, tasting, touching. Joy makes you open and vulnerable, but it will also heal your disappointments. It is silent but shining; it is gaiety with a little gravity. It is more a smile than a laugh.

Joy is an inspirational force that intensifies existence. It is able to guide your heart, your eyes, and your hand when you release the camera shutter. The subject is unimportant; what you have framed speaks because you have photographed it.”—excerpted from “The Personal Style of Ernst Haas” by Ernst Haas in The Joy of Photography

The photograph is the trophy. It shows that you were there, but it’s the experience of photographing that gives this medium its astonishing potency.

The Joy of Photography was updated in 1991. The 1983 edition, referenced here, can be purchased online through various used-book platforms.


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