Hunter S. Thompson’s Advice for Aspiring Photographers: Skip the Fancy Equipment & Just Shoot

Image  via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Musi­cians can often become con­sumed by GAS—or “gear acqui­si­tion syn­drome”—obsess­ing over equip­ment for years instead of mak­ing music with what they have. This is dri­ven in part by the intim­i­dat­ing snob­bery of gear elit­ists, and in part by con­sumer mar­ket­ing seek­ing to con­vince us that we nev­er have enough. It seems that the pho­tog­ra­phy world also suf­fers from GAS, and, as a 1962 pitch let­ter to Pop Pho­to mag­a­zine by Hunter S. Thomp­son shows us—writes the pho­tog­ra­phy blog Peta Pix­el—“the land­scape of the pho­to world half a cen­tu­ry ago may not have been too dif­fer­ent from what we see today.”

In such a land­scape, gonzo jour­nal­ist, “exis­ten­tial­ist life coach,” and hob­by­ist pho­tog­ra­ph­er Thomp­son became a stren­u­ous advo­cate for the spar­tan art of snap­shot pho­tog­ra­phy. He wrote his pitch let­ter to Pop Pho­to in response to an arti­cle by Ralph Hat­ter­s­ley called “Good & Bad Pic­tures,” and to pro­pose his own essay on the sub­ject with the pos­si­ble title “The Case for the Chron­ic Snap­shoot­er.”

He first describes the feel­ing imposed on him by the New York pho­to world that “no man should ever punch a shut­ter release with­out many years of instruc­tion and at least $500 worth of the finest equip­ment.” In such an elit­ist envi­ron­ment, he became “embar­rassed to be seen on the street with my rat­ty equip­ment” and “stopped tak­ing pic­tures alto­geth­er.” Hattersley’s piece, however—which “cites Weegee and Cartier-Bresson”—convinced him that “snap­shoot­ing is not, by def­i­n­i­tion, a low and igno­rant art.” He revis­it­ed his prints, he writes, “and decid­ed that not all of them were worth­less. As a mat­ter of fact there were some that gave me great plea­sure.”

That’s my idea in a nut­shell. When pho­tog­ra­phy gets so tech­ni­cal as to intim­i­date peo­ple, the ele­ment of sim­ple enjoy­ment is bound to suf­fer. Any man who can see what he wants to get on film will usu­al­ly find some way to get it; and a man who thinks his equip­ment is going to see for him is not going to get much of any­thing.

The moral here is that any­one who wants to take pic­tures can afford ade­quate equip­ment and can, with very lit­tle effort, learn how to use it. Then, when the pic­tures he gets start resem­bling the ones he saw in his mind’s eye, he can start think­ing in terms of those added improve­ments that he may or may not need.

You can read Thompson’s full let­ter here. His advice to would-be pho­tog­ra­phers not only offers inspi­ra­tion to ama­teurs and hob­by­ists; it also gives us a phi­los­o­phy of pho­to­graph­ic art (and art more gen­er­al­ly) as an exten­sion of our nat­ur­al sen­si­tiv­i­ties, or “mind’s eye.” His “moral” might apply broad­ly to any cre­ative endeav­or like­ly to be stymied by GAS.

Thomp­son makes the case that what­ev­er we can afford can get us where we need to go: “Why give up because you can’t afford a cam­era with a 1.8 or 1.4 lens?” he writes, “First push 3.5 to its absolute lim­it, and if it still bugs you, you’ll find some way to buy that oth­er cam­era. If not, you don’t need it any­way.” He acknowl­edges that his the­sis “will rub some of your high-priced adver­tis­ers the wrong way,” but writes that shut­ter­bugs who can­not get results on low­er-priced gear will only be dis­ap­point­ed when they fail sim­i­lar­ly with the high-priced stuff.”

The push to shop instead of cre­ate com­pels us to obsess over what we don’t have—Thompson urges us to learn to make the very best with what we do.

You can see some of Thomp­son’s pho­tographs here.

via Peta Pix­el

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hunter S. Thompson’s Ball­sy & Hilar­i­ous Job Appli­ca­tion Let­ter (1958)

John­ny Depp Reads Let­ters from Hunter S. Thomp­son

Read 11 Free Arti­cles by Hunter S. Thomp­son That Span His Gonzo Jour­nal­ist Career (1965–2005)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • RJ says:

    Polaroid pro­duced instant film long before 1962.

  • Peter says:

    ^^ that’s all you got out of this? Haha. Who gives a shit, this isn’t an arti­cle about the gen­e­sis of instant film. Yea, it’s wrong sure but does cor­rect­ing make any sort of use­ful dif­fer­ence? You could at least tell us when it did start if you’re going to take the time to be a smart ass.

  • Brandon L. says:

    I will always believe that as a basic prin­ci­pal; the cam­era does not make the pho­tog­ra­ph­er…
    How­ev­er, I will have to say it holds more rel­e­van­cy to a film era rather than dig­i­tal.
    In the era of film one would put their cam­era and lens into high­est con­sid­er­a­tion, much as we do today with dig­i­tal cap­ture; both need to shoot qual­i­ty images and last through some years of heavy use.
    Aside from the cam­era and lens there are a mul­ti­tude of films and pro­cess­ing chem­i­cals which could deter­mine the qual­i­ty and aes­thet­ic of the image cap­tured.
    In a dig­i­tal era we still have the same camera/lens con­sid­er­a­tion when mak­ing a pur­chase, but the “gear acqui­si­tion syn­drome” is ampli­fied by hav­ing the dig­i­tal sen­sor as a per­ma­nent cou­ple with the cam­era body.
    Entry lev­el pro­fes­sion­al dig­i­tal cam­eras (20mp full frame DSLR) I will say are essen­tial­ly on par with the 35mm film equiv­a­lent as far as break­ing down in enlarge­ment (pix­el vs. film grain).
    Any thing less is a cropped sen­sor and can be a huge drop in qual­i­ty, much like 110 vs. 35 film.
    Today unless some­one throws down a good chunk of change for a full frame sen­sor (>$1,000 on a body alone) they will be far from reach­ing the qual­i­ty attain­able from a cheap ($100 with a lens) 35mm film cam­era.
    I know there are a lot more fac­tors to all of this, but I think this is long enough already… Let me know if there is any nec­es­sary input, dis­cus­sion is good.

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