Expectation, Perception and Reality

Big Day Out

In a post a couple of days ago (Rule 32: Don’t Take Unnecessary Photos), I briefly touched on the time we waste on photos that just aren’t worth it. I chalked it up, at least in part, to the fact that quite a few of us hate to head out with a camera, only to return with an empty memory card. I think there’s a bit more to it than that, though.

First, see your subject for what it is. We don’t always do this; sometimes we’re superimposing our expectations on the subject, thinking a few moves ahead to what it will look like once we’re done fiddling with it. Our expectations can color our perception to the point where they become the reality we see, although not reality as it is. We know what we want the photo to look like, which is fine, but not when you keep a photo that’s not worth it because you’re attached to the idea of it, or when you throw away a shot that’s good on its own merits because it doesn’t measure up to some nebulous ideal.

Second, pay close attention to what’s in your viewfinder. What’s just as counterproductive as a careless choice of subject is when we put more faith in “post” than we do in the fundamentals. So what if it’s blurry, or crooked, or the exposure’s off and the subject’s not all that interesting? We have an unsharp mask, a crop utility, and a clone tool, dammit! Only that’s not quite how it works. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re not only making more work for yourself by shooting carelessly, you’re also decreasing the odds of getting what you’re after. Postproduction takes what’s already there and enhances it… not just the good stuff, but also, sometimes, the glaring flaws we’d counted on it to fix.

Finally, be honest — brutally so, if necessary — about the end result. We often convince ourselves that our work is awful; sometimes we’re right. Sometimes, however, what we’re disappointed in isn’t the photograph itself. It’s the distance between what was in front of us when the photo was made, and the expectations we’ve placed on that photo. If you stop to think about it for a second, I’m sure you can think of photos that came out just as you envisioned them, as well as some that didn’t, and others still that you felt were better than you had any right to expect. None of these things present problems in and of themselves.

However, it’s entirely possible to be crippled by our own expectations. On the one hand, we may think a photo is worse than what it is because we had something else in mind. On the other, we may also think it’s better than it is — or think we can improve or “save” it — because what we expected, or wanted, has become ingrained in what’s on the screen or the print.

We can’t always set ourselves free of our own expectations, nor can we realistically sharpen our perception to a point that it’s going to be 100% reliable 100% of the time. What’s left is the reality — sometimes disappointing, often stranger, but also many times far beyond our expectations. If we want to save ourselves some serious headaches and wasted time, it starts with acknowledging that reality (even if it’s an artistic, and not more tangible) reality. That means setting your work free from your excuses, from what you meant to do or thought you ought to have done, and to acknowledge that this piece of work, at this point in time, is done. You owe it to what you’ve done, and to yourself, to let it stand or fall exactly as it is; get the hang of that, and you can begin to move closer to what you’d like it to be.

Review: Zen in the Art of Photography, by Robert Leverant

Zen in the Art of Photography, by Robert Leverant

The first review run on The First 10,000 was of a photographers’ handbook first published 70 years before. Like that book, Robert Leverant’s Zen in the Art of Photography is an oldie (first published in 1969), but this one doesn’t show its age in the least. It’s a short book that you could probably get through very quickly. I’m going to suggest that you don’t do that.

It’s not that this isn’t a good book. Quite the opposite, really; it’s very good. But it’s not a how-to in the conventional sense, where the author lets you in on his or her secrets to getting a particular shot. One of the cover blurbs on the book addresses a librarian’s exasperation as to how, exactly, he ought to file the thing. Is it photography? Philosophy? Religion? Poetry? The short answer would be “Yes, and…” It’s a book that’s all about the philosophy of photography, and it proposes, in its own low-key way, a more spiritual approach to photography.

Befitting a radically different approach to photography, even the book’s layout and writing are unconventional. It’s a poem in prose, a series of epigrammatic snippets that nonetheless hold together if you try to read them the way you would, say, Ansel Adams or Freeman Patterson. The advantage to this is that you could, if you wanted, read the book in sequence, cover to cover, the same as you would any other. But you could also, if you wanted, read the book’s, or poem’s, individual lines and pore over them the way you would a series of Zen koans.

Like koans, the cryptic phrases given by Zen monks to new practitioners to prod them toward enlightenment, Leverant’s phrases — either on their own, or read as a cohesive whole — don’t reveal themselves all at once, hence my earlier suggestion not to plow through the book in one sitting. You could, but it’s better — or at least, was more fulfilling for this particular reader — to approach each of the 168 segments on its own merits, and to give it full, mindful attention.

So is this even a book, or is it a series of snapshots in words? The advantage to the author’s approach is that it turns the cliche of a photo being worth a thousand words completely on its ear. This book isn’t as explicit as it could be, and to my mind, that’s a good thing, since it gives the words, as sparse and minimalist as they are, plenty of room to breathe. Your own experience, practice, and thought process ends up fleshing out what’s already on the page. In that sense, these aren’t fragments of poetry or prose as much as they’re seeds, meant to be watered by attention, meditation, and practice. Then it’s a matter of transferring that approach to your own life and craft. As the book hints at, this is both as simple as it seems, and as difficult as anything rewarding usually is.

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Here’s Your Permission Slip.

Knock, knock...

Hopefully neither of you will mind if I do a little thinking aloud in this post. I realized something today: I’ve read an awful lot of books on photography in the few years. Some covered technique, some had a more philosophical bent, and still others were just collections of great photos from the last 150 years, give or take a couple of decades. We’re talking thousands of pages, thousands more photos, and countless pieces of advice (some of it explicitly contradictory).

In some cases, I knew quite well what I was looking for, especially when someone had some technical knowledge to impart that’d help me nail some setting or compositional technique or other. Sometimes, with the more philosophical stuff, it helped to read someone whose ideas and philosophical approach to the craft were close to my own; it’s nice to have your thinking validated to some degree I suppose, and/or to find out you’re not (that) crazy. And the collections of photos were great for inspiration and visual literacy… 

Every once in a while, though, I found and still find that I come away from all that stuff — the thinking, the knowledge, the input, even the inspiration — feeling like I’m missing something. I finally figured out that all of this amounts to nothing more than asking permission. Not to pick up a camera (once the bug bit, it was already too late for that) or to get the pictures themselves, but to just let go. It’s taken (or taking) me a while to realize that sometimes what we need isn’t more knowledge, more technique, more inspiration, or more stuff. Sometimes it’s more about letting go of all that, and not worrying so damned much whether you’ve got enough of it. Face it: you do not know enough. You will not know enough, ever, since the more you know, the more you start to get the broad outlines of how little you know and how much you have yet to learn. And that ignorance (I use the word literally, not pejoratively) is enough to intimidate the hell out of you if you care about something enough to have learned about it in the first place. You start to realize that if you’re waiting for enough knowledge, or the right knowledge, you are and will remain paralyzed.

At some point, then, you just have to say, “enough,” and mean it. Know that you have enough, even when it doesn’t feel like nearly enough, and even when you’re told it’s not enough. Improvise, learning as you go, allowing and even welcoming the mistakes. That kind of faith feels rash and counterintuitive, but having faith that what you’ve got is sufficient to get you started can mean the difference between taking those faltering first steps and remaining perfectly, frustratingly still. Maybe we need to set our knowledge aside in order to move past our ignorance?

If you were anything like me in elementary school, you probably came thisclose to missing out on some cool stuff ’cause you were probably a bit late with a permission slip or three. When it comes to your craft, whether it’s photography or something else altogether, stop waiting for permission. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you it’s okay, or that now you’re ready. Indulge, experiment, screw up/succeed beyond your wildest dreams. You don’t need permission, not mine or anyone else’s. And if you’re still waiting for it after reading all this, what you need is not permission, but a swift kick in the ass. You want permission? It’s already yours for the taking… the only catch is, you have to give it to yourself.

Repetition, Evolution and Craft

La Cruceta del Vigia, Ponce, Puerto Rico

A friend recently shared something with me that I’d like to pass along. Paying it forward, as it were. Before I show you what he shared, though, I’m going to go back a couple of weeks to Art and Fear, which I reviewed in this space. There’s a parable in there about quality versus quality.

The short version goes like this: a ceramic teacher divides his class in half, and tells half of them they’ll be graded on quantity, and the other half that they’ll be graded on quality. To get a good grade, the “quality” group has to produce a masterwork; the quantity group, on the other hand, is being graded by the pound.

When the end of class rolls around, the group graded on quantity fares better; while some of what they’ve created is of poor quality, much of it is at least competent, and some of it even great. The quality group, in the meantime, has gotten itself so bogged down in endless debates over what makes a good pot that they don’t have much to show for all their talk, and the pots are lousy anyway.

There are a few lessons to be drawn here, not least of which the simple fact that all the theory in the world, no matter how attractive or how good it may sound, doesn’t amount to squat unless you can back it with results. Just as importantly, it’s by putting things into practice that we learn what works and what doesn’t; it’s where all that theory is realized, and made concrete (or porcelain, if you’d rather).

Speaking of making it concrete, let’s go back to our regularly scheduled post. What my friend passed along is a story that unfolds over several years’ worth of practice. An artist named Jonathan Hardesty (who also goes by MindCandyMan on www.conceptart.org) charted his evolution online for all to see. His first attempts at painting – just working out the basics of line, shape, color and composition – are all there, and you can chart the progress all the way through to his later works, which are fully realized art by any standard.

It’s inspirational, but not in the often-told, generally hackneyed “person just happens upon their art or craft one day and almost immediately discovers a long-buried talent” sort of way. While I’m sure that happens every now and again, I think there’s something in that conventional narrative that poisons the well, ‘cause people miss the part of the equation that involves them putting in a shitload of effort no matter how talented they are. At the beginning of this “version,” on the other hand, there’s no inkling of some phenomenal talent. There are just a handful of studies in color, line, shade and shape. That and a lot of effort that leads, slowly and seemingly inexorably, toward someone finally being able to fully realize their vision.

It’s inspiring because it applies to the rest of us, as well. There’s a debate to be had over the role and nature of talent (whether it’s inborn or cultivated), and we’ll no doubt get to that another time. Leaving talent aside for a moment, though, just think about your own work. If, as it’s been said, it takes ten thousand hours to get good at what you’d like to do, that’s an awful lot of hours to invest, especially when you’re measuring them out 1/125 of a second at a time. I’m not sure that the 10,000 number is meant to be taken literally, or if, like Jesus’ “seven times seventy,” it’s just a simple reminder that it’s something you’re going to have to do quite a lot of. Whichever it turns out to be, plan accordingly but also realize that you will see results for your effort, even if it doesn’t always feel that way at the time.

As sometimes happens, this story came along just when I needed it. It’s easy to look at other people’s amazing work and be intimidated by it. After all, they’ve already had so much time to get to where they are, and here we are – well, here I am, anyway – still a newcomer by comparison. How and when do I get to that point, if ever?

But then I’m reminded of something: when you see work like that, you’re (hopefully) seeing someone at their best. Like a first date, an artist (no matter what their medium is) is going to put their best foot forward. Often as not, that means you only get to see the pinnacle of their work – the peaks, with all the valleys (the false starts, the doubts, the things left unfinished or never started) glossed over or omitted. Part of the value of Hardesty’s work is the reminder that none of us is alone in that process… it’s just that most of us aren’t generally brave enough to put all of it – not just our highest highs, but our lowest lows and every point in between – out before an audience, and essentially grow up in public.

I rather like the idea of calling the act of something “putting it into practice,” ‘cause really, at the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got. Practice, and when that’s over, more practice. We continue ‘til we’ve got it right, and keep going ‘til what’s right gets that much better. There’s no destination, no perfection; only perfecting.

You can see the original thread tracing Jonathan/MindCandyMan’s evolution here, and further along his journey here. His personal website is here. And the “Online Atelier” he started to pass on what he knows is here.

Review: The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood

The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes indulges a little truth in advertising, for a change. “Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes.” That’s it; no hyperbolic promises, no B.S.

This is, in a sense, a book-length treatment of the ways of seeing. We see either by conception (what’s in our field of view is filtered through our ideas, thoughts, and feelings about it) or perception (we see what is, as it is, free of any mental or emotional baggage). The authors’ intent is to have us check conception at the door, in favor of perception. The advantage, they argue, is that you learn to see in detail, and in depth. In other words, you stop just looking at things, and start to pay closer attention, being present with the subject nearly to the point that your photograph is a means of bearing witness to it, rather than simply getting the cold facts of an image onto your memory card.

The upshot of this is that rather than being caught up in “big” things — expressing some big idea, making a grand statement — photography is freed to celebrate the small and the ordinary. What (hopefully) goes on behind the camera — letting go, being spontaneous and genuine — follows through to what’s captured by the camera. Furthermore, it encourages the photographer to broaden his/her sense of what constitutes things like “beauty” and “art.”

Far from being purely philosophical, the book also has a practical bent. This expresses itself first by the inclusion of exercises (some requiring a camera, others not) in areas including light, texture, shape, and visual awareness, that are designed to take all that theory and make it concrete. It’s also expressed by the practical advice given on the mechanics of making a photo (lighting, depth of field, shutter speed, etc.), because if you’ve only got one shot at capturing an image that jolts you into mindfulness, it helps to get it right that first time. Finally, it finds expression in the photographs, some by the usual suspects (Strand, Steiglitz, Modotti, Adams, Weston, and Kertész), and others by the authors and their students. Without all the photos, this would be a very slim volume — nearly a pamphlet — but the photos, besides being gorgeous, serve to illustrate the points made by the authors in the preceding pages.

There are appendices here on image processing and buying the right camera. They’re short, even by the standards of this book, but that isn’t to its detriment. Really, those things are supplemental to the authors’ main point, and they’re treated as such.

In short, this book delivers on its premise, and its promise. If you want to change how you view photography, your best starting point is to change how you see the world before you’ve picked up the camera; the photography will flow naturally from that. If you’re looking for even the basics of photographic technique, this book wouldn’t be the best place to start; if, however, you’ve mastered those — or moved well beyond them — and find that your photography’s still missing something, this may well be the right thing to point you back in the right direction.

Postscript: There are two websites worth checking out, either independent of, or in tandem with, the book:

  • www.seeingfresh.com is intended as a companion to the book
  • www.miksang.com predates the book, and provides both further examples of the authors’ philosophy, and also a wealth of visuals.

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