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  • Writer's picturePaul Cotter

Layers of the Onion

Abstract macro closeup view of onion layers

When I was 25 years old, I thought I knew everything about everything – including photography. Full of youthful arrogance, I walked with the empty swagger of an overconfident fool.


The younger me believed that because I had a decent eye for composition and could shoot a roll of film that included a few frame-worthy choices, I had mastered all there was to know about photography. Boy, was I wrong. Now, after 40+ years of ongoing study and shooting hundreds of thousands of images, I’m forever surprised and humbled by how much more there always is to learn.


Consider the qualities of light, for example. A photographer can spend a lifetime learning to master the subtle nuances: controlling the softness/hardness and direction of light ... creating a balance of light and shadow ... working with the changing color of light at different times of day, and so on. Years ago, I read a quote relating to the supreme importance of light in a photograph. The photographer said, “Everything changed for me the day I realized I’m not photographing objects – I’m photographing light.”


And so it is with every aspect of photography (and life): If we maintain the curious mind of a beginner, we keep circling back to skills we thought we’d mastered, and we continually ripen our understanding.


I've come to appreciate that learning is like the layers of an onion: The more we peel away, the more there is to discover. And the process never ends.


André Kertész, one of the greatest photographers of all time, kept taking photos with the curious mind of a beginner until he died at age 91. Until the very end, he insisted: “I am an amateur and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life.”


Here's to André, and to onions, and to a lifetime of continually learning and growing.

Photographer's Footnote: I photographed this onion using a 90mm macro lens. In post-production, I applied a digital adaptation of the Orton Effect, a look that was pioneered by Michael Orton in the 1980s. He achieved rich color saturation and a dreamlike softness by sandwiching two slide transparencies together – one shot in focus, one out of focus.


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