Serendipity: Have Better Accidents


It’s probably no accident that one of my favorite words in the English language is “serendipity.” It’s defined as a chance happening that works in a fortunate way, which is a longish way of saying that it’s a happy accident.

I bring this up because I know in many past posts, I’ve emphasized mindfulness and care in making your photos. I still stand by that on general principle, because a careless process often leads to careless photos. With that said, let me emphasize, often but by no means always. I’ve also mentioned, after all, that sometimes we need not to try so damn hard, and I’m reminded as I go back over some of my work that some of my favorite photos didn’t happen because I set up the perfect shot; they happened more or less in spite of me. They happened, in other words, by chance, as happy accidents.

This reminds me a bit of the Taoist idea of Wu Wei, variously defined as “action without purpose,” or even “action of no-action.” For practical purposes, it means not worrying about process or about control, and essentially getting the heck out of your own way. Photos like the one that accompany this post came about not because I’m such a skilled photographer. If I had a mind to, I could pick out several things wrong with this picture. The point, however, is that if I’d taken the time to think all of them through and fix even a fraction of them, I’d have missed the shot. Sometimes you just need to stop worrying, point your camera in the general direction of something interesting (or that has the potential to be interesting) and see what develops.

In a roundabout sort of way, that brings me to another point: if, like Woody Allen said, half of life is simply showing up, the same holds true for our best (and worst) photographic accidents. Just the same as it’s important to always have your camera, it’s important sometimes to just get the shot. True, if you pass up the shot, you can’t really screw it up. But you also pass up the chance of creating something that could be great, or at least a lot of fun.

Have any interesting accidents to share? Pass them along and we just might feature them here!

You Like Me! You Really… Don’t Like Me?


If we want to grow as people, much less as photographers, we need to be challenged and to challenge ourselves from time to time. If we fail to do that, both we and our work start to go stale. Of course, the challenges we pose to ourselves aren’t without their own perils. Sometimes we find that our reach exceeds our grasp; we may not yet have the skills to pull off what our ambitions and dreams tell us should be our next logical step. Other times, we just might acheive what we set off to do, only to find that the people who’ve understood, encouraged, and nurtured our work up to a certain point suddenly decide that this new direction of ours isn’t quite their bag.

Some artists find a zone that’s comfortable, or highly profitable, and settle there. Year in and year out, they produce the same predictable stuff that’s earned them plaudits and a nice living. Some part of them might yearn for something new or different, but they’re afraid of what might happen if they suddenly change course. Others may tread a new path briefly and, stung by what they perceive as a backlash, decide they’ve gone a bit too far off track. Others still will just stubbornly go where the muse leads them, their audience (or lack thereof) be damned.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to view this sort of thing as an either/or proposition. We can either follow our vision, or we can be profitable. I think that’s what’s given us artists like Anne Geddes, Thomas Kinkaid, or Garth Brooks. They’re predictable, and in that predictability, there’s a level of safety, both for artist and audience.

There’s an equal and opposite problem, however, when an artist decides to romanticize their own inaccessability. Yes, you can be obscure for the sake of it, and wear the fact that you tend to alienate people like a badge of honor, but if you view art as a primarily social activity,* the antisocial attitude isn’t helping anybody.

A healthier middle ground, I think, comes both in acknowledging your audience, and having the same faith in them that you’d have in yourself. As my mother’s fond of saying, “There’s an ass for every seat.” Not everything you do is going to be a park bench that seats thousands, but it also doesn’t have to be a game of musical chairs sans chairs. If you don’t make a point of routinely leaving your audience in the dust, they’ll keep up. It won’t always be the same audience; some will be as prone to drifting in and out as others will be to stick around from start to finish. But if you respect the craft, respect your audience, and respect yourself, you’ll always find someone willing to meet you halfway even if not everyone likes or “gets” it.

Be willing to make a strong statement in your own voice. If you’re trying to be everybody’s everything and you want everyone to like you, someone’s going to dislike you just for that. All of this comes down to one very simple question: who are you, really? What makes you who you are, which in turn makes your photos what they are? What is there in your craft and art that can only be seen and realized by you and by nobody else? Okay, so that’s three questions, but really, they all come back in some way to that initial question. Some of the best art — The Rite of Spring, Joyce’s later works (here I’m thinking Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake), the mature works of Jackson Pollack — succeeds not because it aims for a mushy universalism, but because it’s as highly specific (and, sometimes highly controversial) as it is. Your work doesn’t have to be polarizing, need not provoke riots in the aisles, doesn’t even have to be obscure or confusing to half the people who view it. What it should be is completely, irrevocably, and irreducably yours.

Beyond Photography: Stew, meet William Wegman

You could be forgiven for wondering for a minute if you’ve wandered into the wrong blog. Read through to the end and it’ll make a great deal more sense, I promise.

Last evening (around the time that I’d normally be writing today’s blog entry, which is why this one is late), I saw the singer/songwriter/Afro-Baroque musician Stew at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. It was advertised as (and was, in fact) a night of songs from the musical Passing Strange, which Stew wrote in collaboration with Heidi Rodewald. I was curious to see how they’d manage to take music performed by a five-piece band and six-person cast at the Belasco Theater and translate it for a smaller ensemble in the more intimate confines of the Pub.

The whole thing translated remarkably well, as it turns out. This was partly because of Stew and Heidi’s talents as songwriters and arrangers, but it’s also due in no small part to an artist being willing to act as though his own back catalog is nothing sacred. The arrangements were turned inside-out, in most cases being miles away from what had been performed at the Belasco, and the show as a whole had less of a Broadway feel to it than an evening of cabaret. There were long discursive and digressive asides alongside the music (and sometimes in the middle of songs), and – just as strikingly – new lyrics to many of the songs that took them to places they hadn’t already been.

Alright, so what in the hell does this have to do with photography? I’m getting there. Give me a minute.
One of Strange’s many themes is the idea of the “Real,” the search for authenticity that nearly every artist (and probably any number of individuals who wouldn’t call themselves artists) goes through in forming and discovering their identity. “The real is a construct,” Stew sang in Passing Strange, and that’s something that’s probably worth keeping in mind, since authenticity generally comes best, and fastest, when you quit worrying about it and just be it. Sometimes this means being willing to go out on a limb with your craft, being willing to experiment; sometimes too, it means being willing to operate without a net, beyond the confines of what’s emotionally safe or comfortable. It’s easier to be true to yourself, and your muse, if you’re willing to ditch the way things have always been done, and not be worried what anyone will think as a result.

"Blue Period with Banjo," William Wegman, 1980

One photographer among many that I can think of who exemplifies that sort of approach is William Wegman. Like a certain songwriter, Wegman gets away with a lot in his work, but his fans – who, by this point, are legion – love him for it. Born in 1943, his early works consisted of conventional portraiture and video work. Acquiring his first dog, Man Ray, proved to be crucial to his work; Wegman’s Weimaraners have become synonymous with the artist.

Over the past few decades, Wegman’s work has evolved, expanding from 20×24 Polaroids to other photographic formats, and also incorporating video. His work has taken him to television (including multiple stints on Sesame Street, work for Nickelodeon, and an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), a residency at Phillips Academy, and exhibits worldwide, including the LA County Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Smithsonian. All the while, the subject matter – those expressive dogs and their creative collaborator behind the camera – have remained consistent, but it’s Wegman’s continual willingness to experiment that’s kept his work vital, and kept him from being a one-trick puppy pony. It’s also ensured that his work has gained quite the following, as his fans (not only those serious about art, but also those who may not give the art a second thought and just love the fact that some guy gets such amazing photos using little more than his imagination and a gaggle of dogs) have followed every permutation of the Wegman esthetic.

I didn’t hear a single complaint last night that the songs weren’t note-for-note the way they’d sounded on the stage or on the cast album; indeed, anybody who’s been a fan for any length of time would probably have walked away disappointed had that been the case. The point is that Stew and Wegman alike have carved out very individual, and idiosyncratic, voices. The fact that both have been true to their individual styles so stubbornly and for so long gives them a pretty wide berth to do what they damn well please. If you’re willing to stick your neck out and do that, your subject matter I think immediately matters a heck of a lot less; people will stick with you through all the changes because they understand where you’re coming from, and appreciate the integrity you bring to your work. So: follow your muse wherever she may lead you. Your audience will keep up.

William Wegman online
The official website of Stew and The Negro Problem
The video above is from Theater Talk, and features Stew and Heidi Rodewald performing “Work the Wound”

The Habit of Seeing


   Diego had never seen the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it.
   They went south.
   The ocean lay beyond high sand dunes, waiting.
   When the child and his father finally reached the dunes after much walking, the ocean exploded before their eyes.
   And so immense was the sea and its sparkle that the child was struck dumb by the beauty of it.
   And when he finally managed to speak, trembling, stuttering, he asked his father:
   “Help me to see!”

There’s a lot of talk about talent that surrounds photography, as with any other art. While talent has its place, it isn’t enough by itself. Nobody, no matter how talented or capable they may be, emerges fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head. Even those with a surplus of talent – those once-in-a-lifetime freaks of nature – need a sense of direction to make the most of what they’re born with. The good news is that the rest of us can take a cue or two from them as well, since with the will to learn, to practice, to fail, and never mind, try again, fail better, can make even a little talent go a long way.

There’s a lot of technique that goes into photography. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring different technical aspects of photography related to different functions and settings on this site, and will continue to do so. However, all those settings, all the skill we seek to develop in mastering not only the fundamentals of exposure, all the ways we try to approach and master realizing what we saw in our mind’s eye in the split second before we pressed the shutter, really don’t amount to much if what we’ve got is a frame of perfectly exposed emptiness.

Mind you, there could well be something going on in the frame. A lot of somethings, even, a cacophony of visual input clamoring to be seen and frozen in time. But something can have form and still be devoid of content if it’s not about anything, and there’s no “there” there. Sometimes we have to look a bit harder to see it, or may even have tried our best only to decide there’s nothing there, and that’s okay… as long as that process takes place before the photo is made.

When you’re working in a visual medium, seeking to be understood by being seen, it’s worth asking whether that vision can be learned, or if it’s something you’ve either inherently got or don’t. In the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about ways of seeing, stepping away from the technical into something that might seem a bit obscure, but is really quite practical. You can learn to see, and communicate what you’ve seen in a way that makes it make sense to someone else. And if you already know, you can find ways to do it better still.

Seeing isn’t something that’s handed down, or transmitted as if by some kind of lineage. Neither I, nor anyone else, can confer upon you a way of seeing. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a vision only you can have, since nobody else can see the world as you do. A codicil to that, though, is that you have to cultivate a habit of seeing. Be willing to engage what’s in your line of sight. Allow it to be present, without preconception or judgment, and – more importantly – be present to it. Dorothea Lange said once that a camera “is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” If part of the challenge is being mindful throughout the photographic process, then another, no less significant, challenge is bringing that mindfulness back to our everyday lives.

By way of a disclaimer: I don’t put myself forth as some kind of visionary. I struggle with this stuff every time I pick up a camera, and even many times when I don’t have one. One reason that Lange’s words resonate with me is because I suppose we’ve all been there… we’ve all had those lapses in vision, when our eyes weren’t altogether open or our heart wasn’t 100% in it. It takes practice and discipline, but if the photo’s worth making, so’s the effort.

A thought in closing (or in transition, if you’d rather): What do you think? What have you learned from a lifetime of seeing, and what advice would you give to someone who’d like to see more deeply?

The epigraph is taken from The Book of Embraces, by Eduardo Galeano.

Camera As Begging Bowl

Be willing to be surprised.

There’s a practice in several religions, but closely associated with Buddhism, of monks who’ve taken a vow of poverty hitting the road with little more than the clothes on their backs, begging bowls in hand. Those who give to the monks earn the karmic merits of their kind deeds. The monk or mendicant relies on the kindness and benevolence of those they meet for their sustenance. I’d imagine they also learn pretty quickly to be grateful for whatever ends up in the bowl, since you never quite know where or when you might come by the next morsel, and you’re mindful that no matter how little you may have gotten, someone somewhere had less still.

All of this might seem a bit removed from the day-to-day concerns of a photographer. When you stop to think about it, though, we’re not that far from those monks. Our cameras don’t function on their own; they rely on our imagination and vision to bring them to life. That combination, of eye, mind, and camera, is in a very real sense our begging bowl; it’s empty, devoid of image, if you will, and we set out to see what the world will put in our bowl, hopefully taking only what we need, and being grateful for what the day brings.

It’s not always easy to approach photography like this. It’s one thing to pick up the camera with a sense of anticipation, maybe even excitement. It’s something else again when that anticipation turns to the expectation of a certain nebulous percentage of keepers, if not amazing shots. The problem with expectations is that at some point, usually sooner rather than later, they come face-to-face with reality. We hit creative blocks, we lose some of the inspiration that we’ve come to take for granted, or we run into external factors we can’t control, like bad weather, uncooperative lighting, or misbehaving equipment. Experience, which you’d think would help, sometimes only adds more hindrances. With time, we come to know what we envision, exactly how we want it to look, and exactly when we want it (now, though yesterday would be preferable).

Disappointment comes when we get attached to those expectations, and think that somehow the world will play along, forgetting that the world has bigger fish to fry. If the sun ducks behind a cloud and ruins the perfect, rich sidelighting you had, it’s not because the universe is conspiring against you. Letting go of those expectations leaves less of a chance that we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

I understand if you’re working on assignment, you generally have a specific timeframe in which to deliver some very specific images. If or when you’re just shooting for yourself, though, try something: pick up your camera with nothing in mind other than making photos. Nothing more specific than that. No cheating, either… “well, I’ll get one or two nice sunset shots, then see what else I get.” For once, let your mind be as empty of expectations as your memory card, and just see. Let your eyes, and life itself, guide you from one image to the next.

I remember seeing a billboard once that read, “No matter what you’re looking for, the real joy is finding something else.” It was probably for some mall or other, but as billboard philosophy goes, I thought it was pretty useful. Over the years, I’ve tried to apply it both to my writing, and to my photography. The result, I hope, has been a willingness to always go into a project with my eyes open, willing – even eager – to be surprised by what I find (or what finds me), even if that something wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Always have your beggar’s bowl of curiosity with you, ready to accept those daily surprises, those calls to mindfulness, with a glad heart and open hands.

Photographic Objectivity: Fact, or Fiction?

Robert Capa: Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death (1936)

It was Robert Capa’s best-known photograph, but also easily his most controversial. 75 years later, the debate continues: was this picture of a Spanish Republican soldier’s last moments the ultimate lucky shot, or was it staged? By 1936, photography had long since left its infancy and entered an exciting maturity, gaining respect both as an artistic and journalistic medium. To what standards would the photographer, as photojournalist, artist, or documentarian be held?

It’s often said the camera never lies. I’ll grant you that the camera, by itself, is the perfect neutral party with no ulterior motives. The issue is that it doesn’t make its own photos; that’s guided by a human being, and all the preferences, knowledge, interests and agendas which that human being brings to bear on his or her photomaking process. So it’s worth asking how realistic it is for photographers to be objective.

Nick Ut / The Associated Press (1972)

It’s worth asking, also, whether true objectivity – a kind of knighted neutrality or impartiality – is even desirable. Some of the best-known “news” images of the twentieth century (Capa’s militiaman, Joe Rosenthal’s depiction of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the photography of Leni Riefenstahl) were posed or staged to make political or propaganda points, so their objectivity was immediately called into question. Other photos, however, were the result of the simple fact that someone cared enough to be there, to compose the shot, set their camera, and decide that this image was important enough that somebody, or several somebodies, needed to see it. Nick Ut’s legendary, harrowing photo depicting the aftermath of the bombing of a Vietnamese village would be one good example, and in more recent times, Thomas E. Franklin’s photo of firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero would be another. You could argue that these images were, in some ways, about more than just the events they captured; countless thousands of images were created over the course of both of those events, but these in particular have lasted precisely because they drew a certain resonance from a photographer’s gut reaction to the scene, rather than his* sense of detachment.

After all, your interest in, or passion about, a subject is likely going to inform whether you decide to approach it at all. If it leaves you cold, it’s probably better left to someone else. If you’re going to present that depiction as an opinion or interpretation, then let the chips fall where they may; the rub is if you’re going to present it as truth, in which case you owe it to your subjects, yourself (as well as your reputation), and your viewers to present your subject in a way that’s as factual as possible. It’s not your responsibility to find the best or worst light in which to portray them; done correctly, context will take care of that for you. Photographers like Jacob Riis, and photomonteurs like John Heartfield practiced their art as activism, but it was in a context that let their viewers know the score (Riis generally published in the muckraking papers of the day, and Heartfield published in the Socialist magazine AIZ, so there wasn’t much pretense of objectivity, nor was any needed).

Flag Raising at Ground Zero (Thomas E. Franklin/The Record/Associated Press)

All of this might seem a bit removed from the concerns of the average photographer, especially those of us who don’t do it for a living. But the issue, and the questions that surround it, are worth raising and giving some serious thought. The camera, with its cold gaze, may not have an agenda in mind; however, the photographer, once the image has left the sensor or the film, can impose any conditions he or she sees fit through a multitude of compositional methods and post processing tools. If your photos of something are either the only record, or one of the more visible records, that carries with it a certain responsibility. Time Magazine learned this the hard way after its infamously retouched O.J. Simpson cover.

In summary, I think that whether or not you “need” to be objective depends a lot on the photo and where/how it’s going to be used. The responsibilities of a photojournalist are necessarily different than those of an artist, a street photographer, or portraitist. The expectations for a photographer shooting for National Geographic** versus those for someone shooting for, say, Playboy (you didn’t think the women really looked like that, did you?), are going to be very different things. It’s one thing to airbrush a zit off the groom’s forehead, but it’s something else altogether to airbrush the thugs and corpses out of the photo of a dictator.

Carl Bernstein, who famously broke the Watergate story in collaboration with Bob Woodward, said that objectivity was “getting the best obtainable version of the truth.” Just as no written article can possibly cover every facet of even the simplest story, no photograph, no matter how talented the photographer, could tell the entire story on its own (nor, I would argue, should it attempt to). You do the best you can with what you’ve got, or can get, but you also have a responsibility, no matter what your niche, to do so with integrity.

*Before someone takes me to task over my choice of gender pronoun (after all, some people live for that kind of thing), I’ll remind you that both photographers being referred to are men.

**Speaking of National Geographic, the magazine touched off quite the firestorm when it became known that one of its covers had taken a bit of artistic license, so this isn’t a strictly academic point.

A postscript, and a note: The Nick Ut and Robert Capa photos came from an essay in the UK’s Telegraph, “Ten Photographs that Changed the World.” Those images, and the others used here, are not property of The First 10,000, but are posted under Fair Use.

Photography: Art or Craft?

The Soft Serve Sentry

Bear with me, as I’ll be spending a fair share of this entry essentially thinking out loud; the purpose of this post isn’t so much to issue the last word on something as it is to hopefully start a discussion.

To begin with, let’s establish the definitions from which we’re working. Art, according to the folks at Webster’s, is skill acquired by experience, study, or observation. It could also be loosely defined as the application of imagination to a chosen medium; some have also posited that anything created with artistic intent is, by definition, art. Whether the end result of those creative efforts is actually art, however, seems to be defined by a mixture of cultural consensus and historical perspective.

So it would seem that trying to pin down a definition of art itself (much less whether an individual piece is art or not) is a bit like trying to nail Jell-o to a wall. Let’s see if we have any better luck with Craft. Webster’s again: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill <the carpenter’s craft> <the craft of writing plays> <crafts such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing>. Well, at least we have some agreement between the two on the skill part.

Let’s put aside the dictionary for a bit, since that’s getting us nowhere. In popular culture, art tends to be seen as something inspired, while craft is somewhat looked down upon as something decidedly pedestrian. Craft has also often denoted something more practical or workmanlike (think of the Bauhaus emphasis on creating objects that might be pretty to look at, but had, above all, to be useful) if not downright kitschy (Martha Stewart, hot glue guns). While photography has its practical applications, those aren’t the first thing most of us would think of when we consider, much less enter, the medium.

Perhaps a more useful distinction can be drawn between art as the end result and craft as the process from which it comes. Ah, now I think we’re getting somewhere. If getting to “art” is somehow fleeting or ephemeral, then craft is the way we attempt to catch that lightning in a bottle. Put differently, anyone can get lucky and create one work of art. Craft is the process by which you take at least some of the chance out of the equation, devoting enough time, effort, and sheer repetition to the process – your process – that you can get the same results consistently.  

 Ansel Adams, who we discussed this time last week, once said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Stop and think about that for a second: one photograph a month, if you’re lucky. And he didn’t mean, “Go outside once a month, take one photo, and you’re done.” If you get lucky, ten percent of your photos will be competent enough to be worth keeping; a much smaller percentage of those would be the ones that somebody besides you still wants to look at a year from now, ten years from now, or when you’re pushing up daisies. Getting even to the point that Adams is talking about – not a hundred significant photos a year, remember, just twelve – took years of practice on his part, and will take years of practice on your part, mine, or anyone else’s who really cares enough about their chosen medium to get it right. That means not just photography, but any other thing to which you care to apply yourself diligently enough to be any good at it, whether that something is photography, sculpture, writing, pottery, or knitting.

Unless you’re using your camera the same way you’d use a steno pad — strictly to document, giving no more thought to art than if you were making a shopping list or jotting down a phone message — at some point or another, each of us has the urge to capture something artistic. Paradoxically, it’s when we start paying more attention to the craft than the art, beginning to hone our vision and the technique with which we express it, that we increase the odds that we create art instead of having it just happen (or not) by chance.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section.

The Mindful Photographer

I really dislike the term “point and shoot.” At some point, it isn’t just a description of a camera; it becomes instead a description of a mindset and way of seeing that sucks the life out of your photos. To be sure, snapshots aren’t somehow evil. They have their place (more on that another time). But if you want to move beyond the crap shoot that is snapshot photography, it’s going to take an adjustment not only in technique, but also, more importantly, in your approach to photography. In short, you need to rethink the how and why of making pictures.

There’s a difference between taking a snapshot and making a photo because there’s a difference between looking and seeing, and it goes deeper than simple semantics. If our eyes are in reasonable working order, we look at things all day every day. We can’t help it. The world is a visually saturated place, whether you’re standing in the middle of Times Square or stuck behind a desk working on spreadsheets. We’re continually bombarded by visual stimuli, and we can’t possibly pause to take in every last millimeter of what fills our field of view. If we tried, we’d have no time for any of the rest of what life has to offer. So we scan briefly, and if something sufficiently bright, shiny, or colorful wanders into our field of vision, we might give it a few extra seconds’ half-assed attention.

Often as not, we take photos the same way. Bunch of visible stuff? Check. Camera? Check. Point. Shoot. Done. Then we wonder, when we didn’t stop to consider the dimensionality of our subject, why its photograph is flat and lifeless. Whether we’re seeing with our naked eye or through a viewfinder, think for a second about all we’re missing.

Seeing is active, a process rather than a result. It’s a conscious choice, a slowing down and a decision to focus. It’s taking the time to study something, to engage it with your head or your heart. Too often, we let stimuli of all sorts flow over us like water through a coffee filter, rather than being present in the moment and asking what that moment requires of us.

At first blush, this probably sounds like some kind of pseudo-mystical babble. It’s not. Don’t just point and shoot. Be still for a minute. Take a good, long look at what’s in front of you. What does it say to you? If something in your field of vision hasn’t grabbed you, will it really make a good photograph?

I use the term “making” a photo (versus “taking” it) on purpose. You can “take” anything, whether it’s a picture or a package of cookies, without giving much thought to it. But to “make” something signals intent, effort, and mindfulness. You can taste the difference between cookies you’ve taken and the ones you’ve made; your photos are no different. Sure, if you take that extra second, you’ll miss the occasional shot. Just like anything else you’re not in the habit of doing, it feels a bit awkward at first, but it gets easier with practice.

Further reading: Darcy Norman’s “On Photography as Mindful Seeing”