Julian Dimock

Julian A. Dimock— “The light had best come from a magnesium cartridge in the hunter’s gun” (ca. 1912)

I was pleased to find a copy of the 1929 reprint edition of Julian A. Dimock’s 1912 Outdoor Photography in a used book store for $5. Unfortunately, this also means that now I have to find the 2002 University of Georgia Press monograph Camera Man’s Journey. Apparently, Dimock made numerous photographic trips into the south with his father. He published an illustrated book on Florida in 1908, but he abruptly gave up photography in 1917 when his father died.

The introduction to Outdoor Photography titled “The Thing That Really Matters” is wonderful. I have transcribed it, and hope to annotate it a bit.

*updated with annotations a few hours later

The thing that really matters is—you.

The law of chance doesn’t seem to work with some people. I know a prominent portrait photographer of the metropolis whose superb technical work I have long admired. It seems impossible that he could avoid getting a certain percentage of artistic results. Yet year after year I have watched his show window and never have I seen a single suggestion of art in any print exhibited.

Not very far from his exhibit of technique is a glass frame, which often contains a single print taken by a woman who is steeped in art. Apparently, she never takes a photograph that is not a picture; at least, she never exhibits such a one. The former has every accessory known to the profession; the latter, a simple room, plainly furnished. The one never rises above superb examples of merely mechanical photography. The other, with her camera, never falls below works of art that make instant appeal to the eye [1].

This may seem immaterial, but I assume that your desire is to make pictures, to have your work show individuality and discriminating folk glad to receive gifts of it. To do this, you must pick up crumbs of art as a chicken picks up corn and grubs. There are simple laws of composition which you can practice all day and every day. You must feel the spirit of the scene on which you look, you must pick out the characteristics and plan how to reproduce them. All this you can do best as you go about your daily life.

Windows make the best of frames for the study of composition. They inclose the scene and you can, by changing your position, swing a tree from the left side to the right side of the picture. You can study its effect in the center of the landscape, the upper corner, at the lower edge. By moving your head a few inches you can cut off half the branches and have the trunk near the edge of the frame. You can find the vacant places and think how best they may be filled. Would a figure look well in the foreground? In the background? In the middle distance? What proportion of sky and earth do you prefer? Can you handle best one tree, two trees, three trees, or a group? Does the scene need clouds? Do they want to be prominent so as to absorb interest or retiring? [2]

Is it a scene in the small mountain country, mere foot-hills? Must you study how to make them look shut-in, cramped? Or is it a view in the Rockies where a cliff in the foreground is a mile high? Must your picture tell of the big scale of things? How do you produce the effect? Perhaps a figure, even in the near foreground, would be dwarfed, lost. The scale is too big,— yet the effect must be produced. That is a problem to puzzle you, yet it must be solved if you are to make the scene real. Possibly an Indian is stretching out his arms to point out the extent of the possession of his forefathers, perhaps the girl of your own party will show the awe she feels in her face, in her attitude. Perhaps,— oh, perhaps a thousand things, and that is the joy of the problem.

But all this you must feel. It must penetrate to your very soul before you can portray it.

I fear that begins to sound like the mushy stuff that our long-haired friends write about in psychical moments. They have the right idea, only they make a nauseating mess of it. It isn’t the state of your moral welfare that has to be considered,— your digestive apparatus has a lot more to do with it. But still, it is very true that there is one scrap of a right moment and a million wrong ones for making an exposure. And because you have so many things to consider, you must have the groundwork so fixed in your mind that a minimum of attention is paid to it. The fleeting expression of the Indian, the changing attitude of the girl, the scudding cloud that silhouettes his erect figure, the sunlight that glorifies his head as with a halo, these are the ephemeral things that you must be able to recognize and to catch as they appear. But they alone will not satisfy. Your composition must be right [3].

You must have looked, while you were unpacking your outfit, and decided just where to place the camera; you must have seen just how much earth, how much sky to give the view. You must have seen the source of light, and come to some conclusion concerning its use. Will you work against the sun, will you have the flattening effect of working with it behind you, or will you shift your position so as to get it at the side? Does the scene need emphasis on the figure, or on the background, or the clouds in the sky? All of these questions, and plenty besides, you must have asked yourself and answered before the camera is set up, for then will come the fleeting things of which we spoke first [4].

Do you want to picture Fifth Avenue? What do you consider first? What strikes you as you walk there? Is it the magnificent buildings, the stores that are so sure of themselves that they do not have the firm name on the building, the homes of the plutocrats, the stream of vehicles, the gowns of the women, or the sad faces of the people with nothing to do but hunt for amusement? What is it that impresses you? Decide that question before you try to picture Fifth Avenue with your camera. Make the lens look with your eyes, make the plates tell the stories your lips would tell [5].

Do you want to give your friends a glimpse of Hester Street? Have you been there yourself in the winter time, lightly clad and shivering, to understand the blue faces of the hurrying men, women, and children? Have you been there in the summer time, when the heat-soaked pavements scorched your face? Have you wanted to be alone when you wandered through its streaming masses of humanity and thought what it must be to live always so huddled together? Before you can bring back to your friends pictures that show the throbbing heart of Hester Street you must have entered into its life.

These are the things that count, the elements that will redeem your work from the scrap heap. And you must develop them hour by hour.

Julian A. Dimock— “In Little Italy the push-cart venders gossip between sales” (ca. 1912)

1.    Merely mechanical photography is perhaps a response to the rise in the proliferation of Kodak’s marketing and the increasing ranks of amateur photographers. In “The Camera,” Dimock laments:

For convenience in use the small, compact, roll-film camera is in a class by itself. “You press the button and the other fellow does the rest,” is the acme of simplicity and possesses only three flaws—“you,” the “other fellow” and the limitations of the small camera. . . . The kodak [sic] type is undeniably portable, always ready for use, unobtrusive, and it may be reloaded in daylight, while any number of extra films may be carried. In expert hands, it is capable of doing good work, but it needs all of the knowledge of the experienced photographer to make it turn out work of uniform excellence.


2.    Note the animism of these paragraphs—“You must feel the spirit of the scene” . . . “Do they [the trees] want to be prominent . . .” This seems consistent with the tepid idealism which underlies the pictorialist movement which coexists with more “realistic” approach of Dimock. The repetitive rhetorical questioning, and appeal that the “questions” dictated by the physical world regarding its own reproduction might be answered during times of non-photographic activity suggests that photography was thought of as a philosophical choice—a way of life— by its early twentieth century practitioners.


3.       The relationships and qualities emphasized here reflect a perception of photography as both metonymic (providing a relationship of parts to a whole) and synecdochic (providing a comparison of qualities, such as “awe” within its parts). The expressed intent to capture not only the “feeling” (the ephemeral moment) and the “composition” (the desired relationship of parts) together, rather than separately, is emphasized. However, “feeling” is emphasized although photography is sketched as a consummately rational activity. Ethical questions, however, are directly avoided. The idealistic approach disengages the practitioner from directly questioning his personal relationship to the scene, deferring it to a mythic quest for accuracy.


4.       The procedure recommended here is amazingly parallel to C.S. Peirce’s delineation of abduction. Rather than deducing a correct approach from a given general field to produce a particular photograph, or inductively working from the particular elements to be arranged in a desired general relationship, what Dimock is proposing is the scientific hypothesis — abductive reasoning. A general hypothesis is generated first and then tested in the practice of making the photograph. Of course, the success or failure of the result is based on the initial quality of the leap—the abductive hypothesis of the scene to be represented. This becomes strikingly clear in the paragraphs that follow. Rather than the “openness” generally assumed of street-photographic traditions, Dimock recommends a clear idea be pursued prior to photographic activity.


5.       The analogy between “lens” and “eye” is taken to even deeper levels further on in the text:

The lens is subject to as many diseases as the human eye; astigmatism, color blindness, false focusing and general distortion. When your eyes disturb you, you don’t study up their physiology and laws of optics, but you get your oculist to prescribe, and perhaps cause to be ground, the glasses you require for your special work. Makers of cameras put specialists on the job of selecting lenses to fit their own output. (24)