What brings this on, you ask? Having had power but no internet for much of last week, I set about cleaning up (read: getting rid of huge amounts of stuff on) my hard drive. Since most of what’s on there is photographs, I found myself going through lots of old — and sometimes not-so-old — photos, thinning the herd. And in folder after folder, I found bird shots galore.
I like birds well enough, provided they don’t poop in my general direction.* But, really, Hitchcock has nothing on my collection. I have scores of bird shots. No, scratch that, it’s probably closer to hundreds. And the thing is, I live in northern New Jersey. Around here, you get finches, pigeons, and sea gulls, and precious little else. I’ve never seen a heron or crane perched on the Hoboken pier (well, not that kind of crane, anyway).
Now, maybe you’ve never taken a bird’s photo in your life. But don’t go getting all smug just yet. My point isn’t (just) the birds.
Here’s the thing: we all have things that we’re drawn to, for one reason or another… things that we’ll instinctively photograph if they’re placed in front of us. For some things (our families, for instance) that’s not so bad. But for others… well, how many birds, or clouds, or sunsets do we really need to photograph?
“But it’s a gorgeous sunset/bird/hood ornament/Shriner’s fez,” you protest. Maybe it is, and maybe there’s a point, sometimes, in taking photos of those things. But if we’re going to go to the trouble of making a photo of something, maybe we should take an extra split second to ask whether it’s worth making the photo. And if the question isn’t worth asking, maybe — just maybe, now — the photo isn’t worth the space it takes up on your memory card or hard drive.
The point, after all that? Well, if you’re in the habit of shooting something just because, perhaps it’s time to rethink, and to come up with a better reason than “just because.” Find a new subject, or the discipline to find something truly different within your usual or favorite subjects. We don’t necessarily need to shoot as though our lives depended on it (hopefully it never comes to that), but it’s good sometimes to shoot as though something of our creativity and artistic sensibility depends on it, instead of shooting something “because it’s there.”
*Especially a bird with an outrageous French accent pooping in your general direction.
I’ve toyed with this post on and off for a while now, and I’m finally going to bite the bullet and just write the darn thing. The short version? By whatever means you can — websites, books, college, osmosis — learn yourself some artistic and photographic theory.
Since I can’t very well just leave it at that, let me elaborate.
There are a couple of acknowledged classics in the field, such as Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but the theoretical framework for photography exists from the medium’s earliest days. Some of this theory concerns itself with ground that’s already been trodden by other arts (you can recycle the philosophical questions around esthetics, for instance, ’til you’re blue in the face), while in other cases there’s more of a concern with how the photographer finds meaning in a subject, or how the resultant photo conveys meaning (or fails to). The one unifying thread through the 150-odd years of theory that’s out there is a desire to make sense of the inner workings of photography, and it doesn’t show any signs of abating as time goes on, since the advent of digital has only added not only more photos, but also more writing about them, into the mix.
So what’s the use of all this theory, anyway? For one thing, it gives us a different lens through which to view and interpret what the medium is about, and is capable of doing. In some ways it also fulfills the same role that literary theory does for the written word. Just the same as we can shoehorn language into stuff as mundane as shopping lists and as sublime as, say, Pablo Neruda, so too can photography be approached in as quotidian or as ambitious a way as you’d like. Reading Barthes, the Adamses (Ansel and/or Robert), Rowell or Sontag will not make you a better photographer any more than watching “This Old House” will make you a better carpenter, but using either of those things as starting points and incorporating them into your practice can lead to a different (and sometimes even better) understanding both of what you’re doing, and why you do it.
In closing, however, let me add two very big caveats, in flashing neon lights if necessary: Let me add to that the thought that the role of theory and the theoretician should be similar to that of the critic and their criticism; that is to say, theory, like criticism, is only useful insofar as it furthers your understanding of something. If what you’ve read only serves to confuse you, or to muddy the waters, you have two options: come back when your practice has taken you further (to see if the theory makes more sense, or holds more water, in light of what you’ve experienced), or decide that maybe that particular bit of reasoning just doesn’t resonate for you, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Second, and even more important, don’t — and I mean do not ever — allow theory to be a substitute for practice. All that theory, all the philosophizing and philosophy and rules and regulations, has its uses, to be sure, but it also has its limitations. Theory can only explain so much, beyond which point it falls (or should fall) silent.
Interested in learning more?
http://www.photographyandtheory.com/ (Photography and Theory) is a conference, now in its second year, that covers… well, you’d probably already figured that bit out, hadn’t you. The Photograph In Theory is an article by Elizabeth Chaplin that covers not only photographic theory, but also where it can intersect with the practice of other disciplines (e.g., sociology)… and there’s quite a bit more out there, if you’re so inclined.
I feel like I should be stepping into some kind of photographic confessional typing this. Come to think of it, I wonder if anybody’s done that? They’ve converted churches into other things, why not repurpose an old camera shop as a church, with photo booths as confessionals?
Ahem. Sorry. My mind’s off on a tangent. Let’s focus. Where were we? Oh, yes. Confessions. So here’s mine: I have shot in program mode. And sometimes — quelle horreur! — in full automatic. I have even been known, albeit rarely, to utilize my camera’s Scene modes. Forgive me, for I have sinned.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “Why all the wailing and gnashing of teeth? And could you please warn me if you decide to move on to rending of garments, that I may avert my eyes?” Alright, probably you weren’t, but play along for a minute.
The reason is this: I recently overheard someone declaring that so-and-so “only” shoots in Program, right down to shooting a wedding that way. As in, “That simpleton doesn’t use Manual, and ergo, is not a real photographer.”
I don’t know if writers get worked up over crap like this. I’ve never heard a writer declare that someone’s work was better or worse because it was written in longhand with a quill pen, or with a manual typewriter, or on a computer running Linux. I’ve never eaten a delicious meal and thought to ask about the pots, or looked at a painting and worked myself into a lather wondering whether the brushes were made of badger hair or nylon. And yet, for some reason, I’m supposed to look at photographs as though the settings used say anything about the quality of the photo, much less the quality of the photographer? Are you flippin’ kidding me?
Don’t get me wrong; if you’re buying a camera that gives you that degree of control, stretch out. Try it. The creative possibilities that open up for you by learning how to use your aperture and your shutter speed, by being able to throw ISO and exposure compensation into the mix, are vast. You’ll be able to do things with your camera that you may not have believed possible (or that you knew were possible, but weren’t quite sure how to do). But you are not a lesser photographer if the camera’s not set to A, S, or M.
And if you’re a photographer, try this on for size: the next time you see someone shooting in a mode of which you disapprove (and yes, you really are being as silly as I made that sound), instead of passing judgment and sniggering behind your counterpart’s back, you might consider asking them why they shoot the way they do. It could be someone’s first day with the new camera, in which case you probably have something to offer them; they may be experienced, but find themselves coming up short in some situations and they’d rather not miss the shot; they may also have been shooting longer than you have, and might rather put more thought into composition than settings just then. Don’t assume, ask. Barring that, leave the judgment to yourself, lest ye be judged… and I say that secure in the knowledge that each of our portfolios — yours, mine, and anyone else’s — is the artistic equivalent of a glass house. You may show your best work, but we’ve all got plenty of stinkers buried on (or quickly deleted from) our memory cards and hard drives. And some of them were taken, no doubt, in Manual mode.
Well. I feel better now. Question is, what do you think?
At a glance, that probably sounds like the most counterintuitive advice you’ve ever gotten. After all, we have it drilled into our heads constantly that knowledge is power. And as someone who seeks to spread knowledge and understanding about photography, even if it’s only in a small way, you’d think I’d be the last person to advocate for knowing less. But let’s go beyond the title, and the negative connotations of the word, for a moment.
In its most basic sense, ignorance is simply not-knowing. That lack of knowledge isn’t something to wear like a badge of honor, but it’s a necessary part of the process, something that’s worth honoring and putting to good use. As long as it’s a point of departure, it’s a phenomenal tool for growth and something worth having around if you plan to get any better at what you’re doing, whatever that may be.
Stripped of our ignorance, we’re stuck. We have nothing new to learn, nothing new to see, and nothing new to say. Think about it: some of the worst of what we’ve done, whether they were wars, race hatred, religious extremism, blinkered political systems, or any of the other myriad forms of hurt, hatred and stupidity of which we’re capable, came about because we “knew” something. We knew better than someone, or knew we were better than them.
What do we have to show for our ignorance? Landings on the Moon and Mars, the exploration of the depths of the sea, decoding the human genome, better understanding of our own minds and bodies… we’ve accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge, the net effect of which has been to further illuminate the depths of our ignorance, which in turn spurs us on just a little bit farther.
What we “know” as artists doesn’t turn us into genocidal maniacs, obviously. But it arrests us, stunts our growth as people and as artists. Knowing something, we put it off to one side; it loses its appeal and some part of its importance. It’s barely worth our attention, much less our continued effort. So ignorance (whether we’re calling it that, or giving it some other name like Zen does with Beginner’s Mind) is vital to our progress, our growth, and our joy.
If we can forget what we know — or begin to realize all that we don’t yet know — we have something to work toward. We don’t know it all. We don’t even know all of a little bit of much of anything, come to think of it. And we should probably be glad for that, because as long as it’s true, there’ll always be something new to learn, and some new surprise, awaiting us at each stage of our learning and putting what we’ve learned into practice.
I had a conversation with one of those life coaches a few years back that’s mostly slipped my mind, save for one thing she told me that’s always stuck with me: “Your biggest strength, or any strength if you overuse it, becomes a weakness.” Pause a second and let that sink in.
I thought about it, and realized that I’m a very analytical person by nature. You need something analyzed? I’m your guy. I’m great at gaming out a scenario — every last what-if, every contingency — ’til analysis becomes paralysis. Over time, I’ve learned to recognize when I’m doing it, and to remind myself to cut it out.
I bring this up for a reason. It isn’t just our personal or character strengths that can inadvertently trip us up. When you try something creative, it’s really easy to find your strengths and ride them ’til the wheels fall off. Photographers aren’t immune to this, so it’s probably a good idea for us to step back, take a look at our work, and figure out what it is we do really well so we don’t do too much of it.
For starters, it’s not just subject matter that starts to get repetitive. It’s also the ways in which we shoot what we shoot. If you’re an architectural shooter, you start to look for the same shapes and patterns, or relying on the same kind of lighting; if you’re a portraitist, it might mean relying on a set of poses that you know could flatter Quasimodo; if you do weddings, it can mean sticking to the same lighting setups and situations that’ve always worked for you.
To be clear, there’s a reason that people rely on formulas. Sometimes — especially when time is tight, or the results are critical — any artist has to know they’ve got things in the old kit bag that they can pull out at will, and that will almost certainly be effective. Once those things are done, they’ll use the time left for a bit of experimentation. So there’s a time and a place for formula, for going from strength to strength and playing it safe. Sometimes, we just need the safety net.
But let’s be just as clear on something else. Sometimes we need to forget the net. We can’t, obviously, just forget or unlearn all that we know (and it wouldn’t be a good idea even if we could). But we can, and sometimes must, at least set it off to one side for a bit. Yes, it’s a challenging, and sometimes even uncomfortable, way of working. However, the skills and ways of seeing that you pick up when you try something new — even if it’s not your usual subject matter or way of doing things — aren’t just about your new subject or the skills that go with it. Those things spill over even into your “usual,” giving you greater options and new ways of doing the same old stuff in a way that it doesn’t have to be the same old same old.
What would you like to do to shake up your photography? What would you like to strengthen, and what kinds of situations or subjects might help get you there?
Less than a week into 10,000/365, I’ve come to realize something that I think was always somewhere in the back of my mind, but which is becoming more and more a part of my photographic practice. For one thing, I tend to shoot without any ideas in mind, or any particular agenda. Setting myself a series of small projects as part of a much larger project has been helpful to keep me shooting, and to see opportunities in places I didn’t before.
There’s another side to that, one that can end up becoming a downside if you’re not careful. You think your shoot through; you have an idea of what you’d like to get, and how you’d like it to look. All well and good, because all you have to do now is proceed to make the photos that you set out to make, right?
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it will work that way. You will have planned well enough, and covered your bases well enough, that no matter what the day throws your way, you will be ready for it. But those days will, in the main, be the exception, unless your expectations or planning are such that you really don’t care what you get, so long as you get something.*
Let me give you an example. I thought out what I wanted to do for the third day’s assignment (the view from your window). I knew where my shot would be, the lens that I would need to get the shot I envisioned, and even what times of day would put my subject in the best light. I was, in other words, ready.
And then the subject wasn’t there. Rather than declaring the day ruined and packing the camera, I had a plan “B”, where I’d also decided on the kind of shot I wanted, the framing, the shutter speed, the lens… And then that didn’t quite work out, either. The idea was to use the shapes of my street’s brick crosswalks as a strong compositional element, and to have the lights of turning cars trace abstract forms over the crosswalk, neatly bisecting the segment I’d chosen.
Only that didn’t work, either, since no matter how I exposed, I couldn’t get the crosswalk to show properly while also catching the lights the way I wanted them. Time for Plan C, which involved the same elements from Plan B, but with a different compositional focus; this time I’d play entirely with the car lights, and make those the center of attention.
The photos that I made as a result weren’t anything like I’d envisioned, but they got made nonetheless. It’s easy to be frustrated when you plan something and it doesn’t go according to plan; we know what we want from our photos, and also what we expect from ourselves. However, I’d caution against letting the frustration be the end of it; let it, instead, be a starting point. Just as we talked last week about experimentation, a good part of photography involves being able to adapt. Sometimes that means changing your camera settings in a different light, seeing your subject in a new light, or realizing that what you had in mind isn’t working, so it’s time to get something new in mind.
*Not, as I’ve mentioned before, that there’s anything wrong with that.
Every once in a while, I’ll go over a day’s worth of shots (or will be looking over someone’s shoulder while they’re browsing theirs), and one or the other of us will comment that a shot was “lucky.” I got to thinking about this. What role does luck play in all of it, if any?
I hesitate to chalk it up to skill, after all. I mean, if you’re Joe McNally or Moose Peterson or whomever, then yeah, you’ve got oodles of skill and experience behind you. I’m none of those individuals, however, so I don’t have quite the same reservoir of skill and/or experience to draw from. So some shots clearly are luck, because they’re the convergence of just the right time, place, and subject, and you, or me, or even Joe McNally being there (I’m sure even he gets the occasional lucky shot).
So if it’s not luck, and it’s not skill, what is it exactly? Woody Allen once said* that half of life is showing up. Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee) said** something similar: “f/8 and be there.” So. Be there, and have your camera. The rest, at least in theory, will take care of itself. All the luck in the world isn’t worth a hill of beans if you don’t have your camera, though, so make sure you have it.***
Since I like to give examples, have a look at my neighborhood Jack Sparrow. I’ve seen this guy at least half a dozen times in the last year, and each one of those times, I haven’t had my camera. Can’t blame him. He was there, after all, dressed to the nines and being his photogenic self. I was there, too. But my camera’s not his responsibility, so missing the shot those other several times I can’t blame on anybody but me.
Any of those other times could’ve been a lucky shot, but wasn’t. It’s the preparedness — having your camera, knowing how to use it, and being ready to use it — that separates the lucky shots from the fish stories, the missed stuff and all that we wish we could’ve gotten but didn’t. There’s some truth in the adage that we make our own luck, but if we don’t have what we need to capitalize on it, it goes to waste.
*At least I’m pretty sure it was Woody Allen. I think from now on, I may just attribute everything to Abraham Lincoln, just on general principle. Sooner or later, I’m bound to hit on something he actually said.
**Yes, I’m sure this time.
***Why don’t we attribute this one to Yogi Berra while we’re at it? The “hill of beans” bit at least sounds in character.
If you’re a frequent reader of this blog (or if you’re here for the first time and just reasonably observant), you’ll notice that there’s no photo where I’d normally put one in this post. It’s not by oversight that there’s no photo, and it isn’t as though I don’t have a bunch just laying around. I bring this up, in part, so you don’t think it was an oversight on my part.
There’s actually a photo I would’ve liked to use. It would’ve been… well, not perfect (I don’t do perfect, sometimes to my chagrin). But at least competent, and I would, I’m sure, have found some lesson that I could’ve drawn from it and shared with you. It would’ve featured some interesting patterns, colors, or textures, or some particularly comely side-lighting, or some animal or human doing something particularly funny, odd, adorable or perplexing. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been all that competent — a mess of blown highlights, or a masterpiece of underexposure, or a composition that doesn’t quite work no matter how much I try to rescue it through postprocessing — but it would, at least, have been worth something as a snapshot… something that had sentimental value to me, if nobody else, because this place, or time, or person, meant something to me.
I have — or rather, I don’t have — a lot of those photos. It’s a catalog of missed opportunities, failures and frustrations. It’s the faded and peeling sign by the muffler shop that I passed by hundreds of times, knowing I really should go back there one day with my camera, only to find that it’d been painted over the next time I went past. There’ve been skies and sunsets, street scenes and parties, events of historical importance and events so trivial that even the people involved probably don’t remember much about them now…
It’s one of the reasons that I always encourage people to have a camera. ‘Cause, hey, you just never know. Some things — some scenes, some shots, some times — you only get but one shot. Do the best you can in the short time you’ve got. You, or it, or they may not pass this way again. Or you might, but something — a painted sign, the way the light falls just so, a fleeting expression, or even just that spark in you that told you that this was the time, this was precisely the right angle, the right photo — might have changed in some small but decisive way that makes that shot impossible the next time out.
And it’s also why I’ve taken so many pictures of you, and you, and you (the whole lot of you, some of whom may see this, others not, know who you are). Times change, we change. And maybe I didn’t always get your good side, or caught you with a goofy look on your face, or maybe that’s not the most flattering thing in your wardrobe. It’s one thing — and a silly thing, at that — to worry about missing a sign or a bird here and there. But the day will come, hopefully a lot farther off than not but probably sooner than either of us or any of us would like, that those pictures that you or I have taken may be all that one of us has left of the other, so I hope you don’t mind too much.
And if you’ve read this far, whoever you may be, I hope you don’t mind terribly either, and that you’ll take this one small bit of advice: Get the photo now. Sometimes that imperfect timing, that imperfect composition, and all those imperfect photos of all the things and people we love for all their imperfections, is the best we can hope for from this imperfect life we’ve got.
Chances are, only their mother called them Leonard, Arthur, Julius or Herbert. To the rest of us, they’ve always been the Marx Brothers. The brothers’ schtick had been refined by years of live work in vaudeville and on Broadway before they ever graced the silver screen, and that experience shows through in their movies’ fast-and-loose, anarchic spirit. It takes a lot of discipline to hone your timing to a point where things can look as though they might fly apart at any minute and yet be so incredibly tight; what looked so spontaneous was, in fact, scripted, repeatedly rehearsed, and — in the case of the earlier films, like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — worked out on stage in endless variations.
Part of the Marx Brothers’ appeal and longevity comes from the personae adopted by the three best-known brothers, based on ethnic stereotypes that were popular on stage and screen at the time (Herbert/Zeppo was the group’s straight man, a distinction he sometimes shared with Margaret Dumont until his departure). Leonard, better known as Chico,* was a wisecracking “Italian” pianist, while Adolph (later Arthur, still later Harpo, for obvious reasons) played a supposedly “Irish” type (though generally mute, in any case) and the wisecracking, guitar-playing Julius — that’s Groucho to you — was as likely to play something vaguely German or Dutch, at least until World War I era anti-German sentiment lead him to adapt something broadly Yiddish.
On the one hand, the movies are as effective as they are because the four (or later, three) cohere so well as a unit. This is especially apparent in scenes like A Night At The Opera‘s famous stateroom scene, or a particularly memorable bit from Horse Feathers that… well, watch it, and you’ll see what I mean. On the other hand, there are equally important and even influential scenes that rely on two of the brothers in tandem (Chico and Harpo’s “Tutsi Fruitsi ice cream” interlude, or Harpo and Groucho’s mirror sequence that would later be re-created on “I Love Lucy.” The brothers would also have set pieces in the films that allowed them to shine as individuals, whether they were musical numbers, or some of Groucho’s more memorable (and nonsensical) monologues.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Magnum Photos, or with photography at all. I’ll get to that part in a bit. Meantime, let’s stop to consider Magnum. Magnum Photos was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, and had as its founding members David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert.*** From the agency’s earliest days, its photographers have been a diverse lot, in terms not only of their nationalities but also their distinct photographic approaches and voices. Capa was a war photographer, Cartier-Bresson a street photographer, and subsequent members have been a mix of photojournalists, documentarians, travel photographers… well, you get the picture.
For all the differences in their respective approaches, however, there are still unifying threads to be found among the hundreds of thousands of Magnum images. There’s an innate curiosity, a unique visual sense, and a consistent commitment to quality that means that there’s a house ethic, if not a house esthetic. It’s those things that unite the work of photographers like Franck, Parr, Haas and Arnold, despite their surface dissimilarities. It’s why the Magnum name endures, and it’s also what’s made the rare collaborations among Magnum members so interesting.
The members of Magnum greatly outnumber the Marx Brothers, and I don’t think they’ve been influenced by Vaudeville (I don’t think that Elliot Erwitt is given to sporting a greasepaint mustache), but I’d still argue that there are important similarities between the two. Collective work doesn’t necessarily have to mean the members of the group submitting to some kind of “house style.”
Sometimes, whether you’re part of a photo collective, an agency, a one-off collaboration, or just (in Groucho’s memorable words) one of “four nice Jewish boys trying to be funny,” a sense of common purpose — even if it’s arrived at in a cacophony of voices — is just as important as a sense of common style. The works of these two entities, the Marxes and Magnum, are the result of what each person brings to the table as an individual. What makes it all gel is that the overriding concern isn’t that everyone should sound, or look, alike; rather, it’s a matter of respecting the process, honoring the work, and allowing each to shine so that all can shine.
As with seemingly everything else, there’s a Wikipedia entry on the Marx Brothers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx_Brothers). You can also find a proliferation of fan sites, such as http://www.marx-brothers.org/ and http://www.marxbrothers.nu/ (Google will help you locate plenty more). When it comes to film, there’s The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection**, which anthologizes their earlier films (from 1929’s The Cocoanuts through their 1933 masterpiece Duck Soup), and an anthology of their later work, titled The Marx Brothers Collection**, which anthologizes their work at Warner Brothers. Of the latter set, A Night at the Opera (1935) is the unquestionable highlight. Given that their work after that film fell off dramatically in terms of quality (though there’d be moments of genius in each of the later films), you could just as easily pick up “Opera” by itself in tandem with the first collection and have all the essentials. In print, meanwhile, there are a few excellent options. Glen Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia** was recently reissued and is a handy reference for all things Marx. Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business** is a good biography of the brothers as a troupe, while Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx** is an excellent study of the most famous Marx Brother.
When it comes to Magnum, there are literally hundreds of options. After all, we’re dealing with an agency that’s employed some of the best (and best-known) photographers in the world over the course of its history. On the web, their own site (http://www.magnumphotos.com/) is the best starting point; from there, it’s relatively easy to zero in on photographers whose work you find particularly interesting. In terms of books, there are two recent standouts on the agency as a whole (you can certainly find plenty more if the mood strikes). Magnum Magnum,** by Brigitte Lardinois, is a fairly comprehensive overview of work from the agency’s entire history, while In Our Time: The World As Seen by Magnum Photographers** (William Manchester et. al.) actually picks up some time before the agency’s founding.
*Actually pronounced “Chick-o,” in case you were wondering.
***Calling HCB, Seymour and Rodger founding members gets into a bit of a gray area, since none of them were present at the initial meeting.
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Every once in a while, I’ll read over what I’ve written on this site and realize that my average post leaves out about as much as it leaves in. Sometimes, in fact, it leaves out much, much more. There are a few reasons for this, not least the fact that I’m covering something in blog form that has, often as not, been covered in a much longer article, a chapter of a book, or sustains a book all on its own.
More importantly, however, there’s the process itself. I think sometimes that it’s important to leave stuff out. For one thing, I don’t think there’s a single, objective way to shoot any given photo. Each step in the process — setting up the shot, choosing your particular combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed, whether or not to use flash, using a filter (or not) — can be taken any number of ways, some of which will expose your photo identically, but others of which will lead to drastically different outcomes.
I could probably give photographic “recipes,” along with very specific steps to arrive at that specific photo, but what use is that? I don’t even like taking the same photo over and over again, and I’m not sure that I’m doing you or anyone else any favors by showing you how to do that one thing. When it comes to my own learning, I’ve sometimes lucked out and found exactly what I needed in a book, on a website, or at the elbow of another photographer. Sometimes, though, I’ve been just as lucky to find out just by trial and error. Lots of trial, and — God knows — plenty of error.
I can hear the question coming, if it hasn’t already. Okay, your point?
Here it is. Experiment. Lots. Experiment with subjects, trying out as many different things as you can think of. Experiment with the rules, to see how they work and what happens when you break them. Experiment with your gear, seeing if you can find its limits and yours, and whether you can push just a little bit further.
Experimenting means that your process becomes your own. It also means that what results from your process won’t be mine, won’t be your friend’s, or that guy at your camera club who won’t stop yapping about his D4 and all his 1.4 glass, and that’s okay. It’ll be something that’s uniquely yours, which, at the end of the day, is rather the point of this whole thing.
Just as we don’t photograph for ourselves alone, we also shouldn’t learn from ourselves alone. There are countless photographers who’ve preceded us, to say nothing of our contemporaries (who, at last count, are legion). And even though there are times that, as I mentioned this time last week, it feels as though someone else has beaten us to darned near everything, that’s actually something we should be glad for.
For starters, it can be very intimidating to blaze your own trail. It’s always helpful when someone’s been there first; their work acts as a roadmap or a compass into what’s essentially uncharted territory when you’re first starting out. Be grateful that someone else’s work, and experience, is there to light your way, whether that person’s name has gone down in history, or isn’t known outside your camera club.
Others’ work can also be a good indicator to you of what you would, or would not, like to do or become as a photographer. If you’ve read much of what I’ve posted here, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of the photographers who inspire me… names like Cartier Bresson, Lange, Doisneau, du Chemin, and Orwig, for instance. Their photography, along with countless others’ photos, have given me a sense of what’s possible. Your list will probably be much different than mine. That’s okay. But I’d definitely suggest that you make one. Pay equal attention to photographers whose stuff you don’t like, and don’t appreciate them any less; they, too, have quite a lot to teach you if you let them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you will come across photographers whose work and style you appreciate even if it’s 180 degrees from what you do, or would like to. Be especially thankful for those photographers. I’m reminded of this almost every day when I look at the work of someone like Annie Liebowitz, whose photos show the touch of someone who’s just as much an auteur as a photographer. The same thing happens with, say, a really good wedding photographer. That takes a kind of talent that I haven’t got, and what’s more, a talent that I’m not all that interested in cultivating (the thought of photographing someone else’s once-in-a-lifetime event scares the shit out of me, to be completely honest). But I appreciate that talent, I appreciate the time and effort that someone’s put into their craft to arrive at the point that they can make those kinds of photos, and I especially appreciate that they’re generous enough to share them with the rest of us. I’m half tempted to call or email them and thank them for doing that kind of photography so that I don’t have to!
That’s just my take. What about you? What can you find, or have you found, to appreciate in other photographers’ photography?
When’s the last time you asked yourself who your audience was, or who you were shooting for? What difference might it make to your craft, depending on who “they” were?
You’re your own first viewer. You saw these things before they were photos, remember, and saw them through the process of composing, exposing, and editing. And it’s not at all uncommon, having lived with our photos and ourselves for so long, that we take for granted what they’re saying is as evident to someone else as it is to us.
Shooting “for” a friend or mentor is a way around that particular trap. I put the “for” in quotes ’cause you don’t necessarily have to tailor every last aspect of your photography to that one individual (in fact, I’d suggest you don’t, ’cause you’re likely to end up crestfallen if you’re relying just on the input or approval of one person, even if you are that one person). Instead, I’d suggest that it keeps us from falling into the trap of creating self-absorbed, solipsistic crap. There’s plenty of that around as it is, so there’s no need for you or I or anyone else to add to it.
Which brings us to the ultimate acid test: putting your work out before the public, whether for sale or for show. Even our best critics, the ones we can count on for criticism that’s useful and perceptive, aren’t exactly going to prepare you for someone passing judgment on your work with their wallet. If you go that route, just bear in mind that low sales don’t mean you suck any more than robust sales mean that you’re the second coming of Brassai.
Of course, any of these audiences (even, or perhaps especially, counting ourselves) can be notoriously picky and fickle lot. Putting your work out there, whether it’s to anyone who’ll sit through your latest batch of snapshots, or a trusted friend/mentor or two is invaluable. Sometimes we know so well what it is that we set out to do, and the meaning we sought to convey, that we see it plain as day even when it isn’t there. Having a fresh set of eyes on your work is a necessary first step to let us know when we have, or haven’t, “got it.”
At some point, that transitions to us being able to take on that “outsider” role for ourselves and to be able to view our own work objectively after all the subjectivity that went into making it. It might feel a bit odd at first, but it’s a worthwhile habit to cultivate; when you’re not just shooting for yourself, you’ll be on your way to finding something that resonates with more people, but also on your way to making sure your images are saying what you mean them to say.
If you’ve ever attempted a workout routine, stuck with it for a while, and then stopped (injury, bad weather, loss of motivation), you know how hard it is to get started again. You also know, as you start to get back into the swing of things, that you start to ache in places you never knew could ache. While photography doesn’t have that many aches and pains to go with it (though with heavy gear, that’s also a possibility), you still need to keep your skills sharp through plenty of practice.
This is especially true when you’re trying something new, like a different compositional technique or a camera setting that you don’t use very often. The first time or two, you may have to take mental — or literal — notes, or even refer back to the camera manual. Do it often enough, and it becomes second nature.
But if it’s something you may only be doing every so often, it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned. Yes, I know, some smartass is probably going to say that it’s just like riding a bike. If that’s the case, I’ll have to be extra careful not to fall off my tripod. But I digress. If you haven’t used a skill in a long time, it’s easy to forget how to do it, or even not to do it quite as well as you would have if you’d been in practice.
I was reminded of this comparing some recent shots to an older series taken in the same place. The more recent batch was better in a number of ways (I hadn’t been shooting that long the first time I’d gone), but I noticed in that earlier batch that some of my shots used things that I liked (and still do) but that I’d let fall by the wayside, like using frames within my shots.
Now, that’s a pretty minor thing, all things considered. With that being said, the skills and little tricks that we bring to bear on our craft are a language unto themselves. They have their own vocabulary, their own syntax. As with your spoken/written vocabulary, the more you’ve got, the more options you also have to express yourself. Imagine yourself trying to express something, but you’ve forgotten the word or words that go with it. Your photography’s like that, as well… it becomes just a little bit harder to express the things you’d like to express without the right “stuff” with which to do it.
So. If you’ve picked up some new skill, be sure to dust it off every so often. Leave yourself a reminder, or go back over some of your older work. In either case, it’s a good way to ensure that your skills stay sharp (or at least don’t get too severely blunted) for when you need them later.
The first time I heard Soda Stereo was around the time that their last studio album, Sueño Stereo, came out. Though the band would soon go their separate ways, I continued to follow the solo career of the band’s frontman, Gustavo Cerati, through a series of albums that dug deep into ambient, electronica, guitar-driven rock, and even a full-blown orchestral album. Cerati’s work always made for interesting, and sometimes even challenging, listening. This was not least because he sings in Spanish, but also because the musical style itself was constantly changing, slipping in and out of genres even over the course of a single song.
The language barrier, in my case, meant that bits of half-remembered high school Spanish, things understood in passing and in context, rendered the lyrics are as slippery as the music itself… acertijos bajo el agua, to borrow a lyric. The funny thing is, the lyrics still tend toward the cryptic even in translation; between that, and the music, the whole experience reminded me a bit at first of Radiohead minus the alienation and paranoia, but over time, it’s become something else: a reminder that the things we create sometimes resonate with people in ways that they might not understand themselves at first.
Which brings us, in typically circuital fashion, to Man Ray. Over the course of his lifetime would cross paths with all manner of artists (Duchamp, Stieglitz, Ernst and Arp, among others) and have a hand in Dada, Surrealism, photography, film, and conceptual art. In nearly every case, whether it was the eye-on-metronome Object to Be Destroyed/Indestructable Object (1923), the memorable portrait Violon d’Ingres (shown at left), or his Rayographs (objects developed directly onto photographic paper), familiar objects, and familiar artistic conventions, were repurposed or turned inside-out by the artist.
They’re different enough to provoke a double-take, maybe even a touch of unease; at the same time, though (as we might expect from an artist who’d been classically trained, and who also worked in graphic arts), they’re grounded in forms we know, and have seen countless times before. Like Cerati, Ray’s “language”, his visual syntax, isn’t always immediately apparent, so the work reveals itself in layers, and leaves itself open to interpretation.
Both these artists’ efforts work in much the same way. There’s a strangeness there, among the musical textures, lyrics, repurposed irons, and photographic prints, but in each case, it’s also anchored in something familiar, whether it’s a four-on-the-floor rhythm or the conventions of portraiture, even as it subverts what we’ve come to recognize or take for granted.
Quiero hacer cosas imposibles… If you’re going to attempt something new and different, therefore, it helps to remember that the things that have the power to surprise us aren’t always those that are radically different. Instead, that little “poke” is just as likely to come from something we know, speaking to us in a language or a syntax that teases just at the edge of our consciousness. Venture off into the strange, but keep one foot in the familiar…
So you’re finally on your way to figuring out this whole photography thing. You already know you should have your camera with you; you’ve shot photos by the hundreds, if not the thousands, always working to hone your craft; and you’ve trained your eye to look for a photo opportunity in nearly everything you see. All well and good, right?
Here’s the thing: there is such a thing as trying too hard. Mind you, I’m not talking about the effort that goes into getting the composition you want, or making sure your settings are the optimal ones for whatever you’re shooting — that’s time well spent. What I’m referring to instead is… well, trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Sometimes, whether it’s because of the lighting, the weather, or even just the subject itself, there’s something in front of you, but there’s just no photograph there.
I understand that itch we all get, and the need to scratch it. You know the one I’m talking about; you’ve been walking through a location for what seems like hours, and you’ve yet to see a single thing worth photographing. Everything looks flat and dull, and before you know it, you start to feel a bit flat and dull yourself. Your shutter finger gets itchy, maybe your eye starts to twitch a little because it’s been away from the viewfinder for too long. You’d hate to spend a perfectly good day out with a perfectly good camera only to come home with an empty memory card. So you compromise. You settle on shots that, on a better day, you wouldn’t bother with, or you start trying to compose interesting shots of topsoil.
If you’re really struggling with the shot, to a point where it’s not simply a matter of getting the basics right (composition, lighting, settings, et cetera) as much as it is a nagging feeling that maybe you’ve got your subject wrong, listen to what your instinct is telling you. Let it go. Trying to find the right photo at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, is like trying to find an Eames chair at Wal-Mart. It probably isn’t going to happen, and if it does, it’s probably going to be a pale imitation of the real thing. There’s no shame in leaving the camera at your side, or putting it in its bag. Nor, for that matter, is there anything wrong with waiting ’til something comes along that’s really worthy of your, your camera’s, and your audience’s attention.
Stop and think about some of the best images you’ve shot. Not necessarily the most technically proficient. The ones that, for all their flaws, you wouldn’t trade for anything. I know I have a pile on my hard drive, mostly of people I love just being their usual selves, or of things I’ve experienced that, even though I won’t soon forget them, I’m glad to have the photographic reminders of. I’m sure you have them too, blurry or hurriedly-composed shots (if you even gave a second thought to composition) of a thousand memorable moments.
A lot of what we think of as “art” catches those same everyday moments. The only difference is, there’s just a bit more attention paid to the finer details.
That brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to the writer Robert Fulghum, who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, and other bestselling collections of essays. This isn’t Thoreau or de Montaigne territory. Fulghum’s essays aren’t often concerned with events that wouldn’t happe to anyone else. He described What On Earth Have I Done, his last essay collection, as “adventuring out into the world as it is and noticing it and talking about it… being aware out there and being aware in here.” His essays, in other words, are more often written about the moments in life that we too often pass over or take for granted, in order that we might stop, reconsider, and quit taking them for granted.
Another Robert — Robert Doisneau, whose centennial happens to fall this week — shared Fulghum’s knack for observing (and, in the case of his best-known image, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, recreating) intimate everyday moments. Doisneau begain photographing at sixteen, and while he would one day be regarded as a street photographer on par with Henri Cartier Bresson, he started out taking photos of the cobblestones beneath his feet because he was too shy to approach human subjects. By most accounts, that shyness never quite left him. Thankfully, though, it also didn’t keep him from capturing images that became synonymous with a certain notion of France, but that also gained fame in the world at large because their everydayness resonated with the rest of us.
It’s understandable to want to make a grand statement, and to want leave our mark on our craft, if not the world. With very few exceptions, though, life’s not usually made up of such sweeping, grandiose stuff. Our lives can seem — or even be — stultifyingly ordinary. But take a look around your own life, and your own world as it is. A pretty eventful place, no? Dive in!
The solution isn’t necessarily to try and escape what we see as mundanity (though that can be helpful sometimes), so much as to observe it closely, even lovingly. Both Roberts’ works endure as they do not because the people in them are extraordinary; it’s because they’re extra ordinary. They’re so normal that we’re pulled into these little microcosmic worlds sometimes in spite of ourselves. We’ve known, or even been, these people; these portraits, whether with words or photographic processes, are familiar to us because they’re drawn from a life we recognize.
On the Web:
The official Robert Doisneau site in French here, and in English via Google Translate here. Robert Fulghum’s official site is here.
I got to thinking recently about many religions’ prohibition against idol worship. Judaism and, by extension, Christianity both caution against idolatry (the Ten Commandments explicitly warn against graven images. Islam takes the prohibition so far that neither Allah nor Muhammad may even be depicted in art. What’s this got to do with photography? Well, hold on a second. I’m getting there.
The Buddha was famously supposed to have said to one of his disciples, “My teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t mistake my finger for the moon.” Some photographers, unfortunately, engage in this sort of idolatry all the time.
Let’s start with the gear worshippers, shall we? Never mind that your average photographer wouldn’t think, even for a second, of waxing rhapsodic over a ratchet screwdriver, cordless drill, or even one of those little rubber thingies you can use when the lid on a jar of pickles is too tight. A good many photographers* get a little woozy when they talk about the gear they’ve had, have, or have yet to purchase. The virtues of bodies and lenses are debated as though their spec sheets were an arcane form of scripture.
Then there’s an even higher echelon of gear worship, wherein the penitent swears fealty to only a particular type of gear. One may “only” shoot with primes, or certain speedlight setups, or with the proper medium format back. All others are proscribed, and must be forsaken.
Then, of course, we have the photographic Calvinists. Digital, to this lot, is an abomination. To them, film is the only medium worthy of consideration by a “serious” photographer. Certain subsects will take this a step further, and insist that the sacrament of film must be placed in a Holga or other suitable plastic vessel, preferably with duct tape affixed to keep out the light leaks.
And lest we forget the fundamentalists of style. They know all the rules for their genre of choice, and they are thoroughly convinced that no matter what your intention, if you’re not doing it their way, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t think they’ll neglect to call you out on it, either.
Gear, ideas and techniques are belabored as if they’re fine wines, with the unspoken assumption a little too often being that these things aren’t what they are — tools — so much as objects of awe and veneration. If you’re going to focus on something, focus on the simple act of making a good photo. No more, no less. If you fall into one of the above categories, here’s a clue: you’re a photographer, not a freakin’ Gnostic. Get over your obsessions, get over the mistaken assumption that gear makes the man, and most of all, for the love of all that’s holy, get over yourself.
Ahem. Sorry, got a little carried away. Let’s circle back to the original point. All the talk of idols doesn’t just apply to worshipping objects in stone or wood. It also means the idolatry of our own ideas and fixations. This isn’t an altar call; I don’t expect my comments section to be flooded with sudden remorse over gear obsession, or the fact that you told someone on a street photography forum that they’ve violated the spirit of Bruce Gilden by not getting close enough to their subject to constitute adultery in 35 out of 50 states. All I’d like to suggest is that if your photography is a labor of love (and really, it ought to be), make sure that love’s going in the right direction.
I can’t even pretend that the photo at left is a great picture. I’m well aware that, as the caption indicates, it’s a pretty bad photo. And yet, for all its blur, it conveys a sense of motion that might’ve been lost in a photograph that was more technically correct. If I had a mind to, I could even pass it off as an abstract. In short, for all its flaws, I like it.
I didn’t always. The morning after the show in question, I went over the hundred or so shots I’d taken, and deemed every last one of ’em crap. I saved them in spite of that, though, because I learned a long time ago that I can be absolutely brutal with myself when I’m taking the first look over something I’ve just done (which, incidentally, I still tend to do).
I’m hardly alone in this. I think that most of us (not counting those who’ve downloaded Picnik and bought an SLR and so feel entitled to call themselves “professionals”) have, at some point, convinced ourselves that our work — every last bit of it — sucks. The irony of it is, if you’re convinced your work is terrible, it probably isn’t as bad as you’ve convinced yourself. And even if it was (we’ve been there, too), it won’t stay that way as long as you keep working at it.
But I digress. There’s an expression that I come back to from time to time: “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” As I told a friend not long ago, sometimes good enough really is good enough. And sometimes, the imperfections in something have a charm all their own, or communicate in a way that a more accomplished-looking result (or one that we’ve gone back and polished to a high gloss) wouldn’t. Rolling Stone won’t exactly be beating my door down or blowing up my phone looking for the rights to this photo (nor, I can safely assume, would Mr. Doughty). But you know what? I can live with the photo, so I can also live with that.
The best thing about your craft, whichever one you happen to practice, is that you can always revisit it later. Photography, like writing, allows for a certain amount of revision on top of the practice that any craft allows, and even encourages, you to put into it. Hang onto your work, because when you do that, you may be surprised to find out that it was better than you thought when you first made it. There’s a lot to be said for being comfortable in your own skin; there’s every bit as much to be said for being comfortable in your own craft.
If you asked me twenty-five years ago whether I thought of myself as a photographer, I’d have looked at you funny. If you asked me now whether I could see myself on stage, giving a speech, or sitting behind a mic on the radio, I’d probably look at you just as funny. My interests have changed over time, and I’d wager that yours will soon enough, if they haven’t already. You might not still do all the things you did when you were younger — maybe time, money, or a bum knee won’t permit it — but don’t turn your back on them altogether.
I bring this up because I spent a good couple of hours yesterday shooting at my niece’s school musical. Granted, there’s the usual photographic business — figuring out the best sight lines, fiddling with settings and exposure, keeping fingers crossed that you’ve brought along enough memory cards — but beyone that, it was the chance to revisit something I’d done a few times in my own past.
It’s a good challenge to go back to things you’ve done in the past. For one thing, you have a different (and, I’d dare to say, somewhat deeper) understanding of something having done it yourself, even if you’re far short of an expert. Let’s face it, someone who’s been on the inside of something can bring an understanding to photographing it that an outsider might take a bit longer to pick up.
For another thing, it’s easier from a photographer’s point of view to “read” the goings on. There are rhythms, or at least a kind of internal logic, to how certain things unfold. It’s a lot easier to settle into that groove, to find or even predict the best shots, when you know how something works. It’s a bit like following a score or libretto, in that you can skip ahead a bit to anticipate what comes next, wait for it, and capture it versus sometimes shooting blindly and hoping for the best.
I’ve written before about cultivating interests outside of photography. Those things, besides being a break from photography and something that can give you a respite from shooting, can give you new subject matter and a new perspective on your photography, even if that isn’t why you took them up in the first place. However, it’s not all about looking ahead to the next new thing; sometimes, it’s just as productive — and just as much fun — to go back to something you may not have given a second thought in a very long time, just to see what develops.