OWNING YOUR ORPHANS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE THING THAT HAS GOTTEN HARDER, RATHER THAN EASIER, in the making of photographs in the present day, is dodging the answer to the question, “what’s wrong with this picture?” Yes, this picture. The one right here. The one you took. At its inception, the art of capturing an image was heavily weighted with obstacles to merely getting things done from a mechanical point of view. Now, several centuries on, the technical guarantees (what some might call idiot-proofing) of the process has taken more and more of those traditional alibis for making lousy photos off the table. What remains on the table: we either did or did not make the picture happen. We. Us. Me.
Over a lifetime, I have seen a slew of excuses for lousy images dissolve like sugar, from I had the wrong speed film and the flash bulb didn’t go off to I left the lens cap on, many of them obviated by succeeding improvements in gear and the ability of manufacturers to anticipate both our needs and, let’s face it, our incompetence. By now, however, with cameras nearly possessing their own artificial judgement-making ability, the list of reasons why a photo bombed has been reduced to things like I brought the wrong camera, this isn’t the right light/hour/day to try for a picture, and the sun got in my eye. More and more, there is one stubbornly persistent cause I find behind most of my muffed shots:
I don’t know how to make the picture.
Think about it: how many of your photos that you currently feel came up short are due to technical failure, equipment malfuction, or not having enough options to get the job done? A failure to realize one’s vision was once something where, between you and your gear, there was plenty of blame to go around. Now, there is still blame, but all arrows lead back into our own faces.
I don’t like this picture. And it really doesn’t matter that I can’t yet analyze just why it failed. The only thing that will allow me to eventually address its flaws is to admit that the fault lies with me. My vision. My poor choices. There is nothing technically wrong with this image. It was exposed properly by any general rule of thumb. And yet… it just lies there, like a lox. And the fault in such pix is even worse if the image was taken with fully manual settings, because I opted to make all the choices in the making of it, delegating nothing, certainly not responsibility, to the camera. And yet these are the only pictures that will ever teach me anything.
If my answer to a failed shot is, “jeez I don’t know what happened” (and assuming I’m not lying through my teeth), then that picture is worse than worthless, since I’ve consigned it to chance or lousy luck. In fact, my worst pictures are educational chiefly because the more I understand myself..my motives, my conceptions, and so forth…the more I can deliberately make something better. And this is certainly true for anyone. But first, you have to honestly, totally and lovingly own your orphans.