The Argument for Photographic Purism

A different way to look at creative photography

Stan at Netflix, 2008

Two Kinds of Photos

At Lucasfilm in the ’80s I was concerned with the digitization of media, and later, at Netflix and Adobe, my work involved democratization of the tools for manipulating and sharing media. But my personal interest has long been with shooting and studying photographs.


With just these delineations, we can slice the body of modern photography into images that are organic and those that are inorganic (which I prefer to call “crafted).” Weston set things up in his studio to shoot them, and directed Charis, his model-partner. Adams wasn’t much for setting up his photos, but of course famously fixed them in post. The rise of 35mm cameras and faster films made snapshots possible. Kertesz played in both realms, shooting moments of his life, and setting up interesting things to look at and shoot. But it was Cartier-Bresson who most embodied the organic ethos — he composed in frame, he noticed things in the world around him, and caught them beautifully. When he printed he wanted the viewer to know with certainty he didn’t crop his photos, and he left a black line around the outside verifying the edges of his negative. Cartier-Bresson is the godfather of this organic real-world composition in photography.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Hyeres, France” ( 1932)
Sebastiao Salgado, “Firefighter and Fireball, Kuwait” (1991)

Fine Art Photography

As to inorganic “crafting,” fine art photographers do this routinely — assemble a subject in some sort of juxtaposition, or in any variety of vignettes, to tell a story or convey an idea. I’m attracted to this kind of conceptual creativity, but it’s easy to see how it’s inorganic. The photographer is not trying to trick us into thinking “this really happened” or “this is real.” It’s a painting done with real objects. It can be overt collage — like Jerry Uelsmann or Maggie Taylor — or it can be nuanced refinement, from ten million Photoshop users.

(l) Stephen Sheffield “Ascent” (2009); (r) Irving Penn “Frozen Foods” (1977)
(l) Marion Post Wolcott “Unemployed Coal Miner’s Child Carrying Home a Can of Kerosene” (1938); (r) Erika Stone “Lower East Side” (1947)

Modernism in the Digital Era

I think of what I’m doing as “pure seeing” and consequently I think of my work as a sort of return to many of the old notions of photographic modernism, although now as a reaction to both the digital malleability of images and the sheer quantity of images we experience. Some of the environmental conditions are here again: the proliferation of quality 35mm cameras that lead to modern photography is akin to the exponential growth of phone cameras today; Like many amateur photographers, I reject the effects and modifications that are increasingly accessible and believe that the camera and straight composition is sufficient — and an appropriately challenging way — to create new and delightful ways of seeing. And it’s important to know a work is straight.

A couple recent Instagram posts from friends; Nate (at left) usually shows photos that are organic, so for this “amazing shot” he has to qualify it as faked. It would only take one share of his image for that note to be lost and this to be consumed as a true photo; conversely Russell Brown (at right) is one of the pioneers of Photoshop and has to qualify that he really saw the bird and this is an organic image.
Half Moon Bay, 2017

Pure Seeing

It is the act of catching a real moment, of real things. Images are discovered and caught, not montaged together in software. They present the ephemeral or overlooked, they see the commonplace in a fresh way. They are unset-up, undirected, completely in vivo.

Davenport Sea Glass Hunters, 2016

Formally, But Naturally, Composed

Like a painting, every element of the image is purposeful, but not contrived. They are harmonious in their spontaneous placements. They hold a rhythm of discovery that presents an experience of delight. They embrace the nature of “the decisive moment.”

Lake Chautauqua, 2009


Whether an inner or external truth, they speak to something that is real and personal in the world, a feeling, a moment, something intimate, maybe something known and forgotten.

San Francisco, 2015

Moment, More than Object

They are very much about time — they couldn’t have been taken by another person at another moment; they embrace the essential nature of a camera to reveal the fleeting.

Palm Springs, 2015

Without Commercial Intent

Photos taken for the love of photography, not for a client or the public.



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M. H. Rubin

Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.