By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE READ MORE THAN A FEW ARTICLES OF LATE by professional photographers who confess that they occasionally get stuck in teaching mode, even to the detriment of their own love of shooting. One such author went to far as to recall a recent concert he had attended, camera-less, only to observe, with snotty amusement, the attempts of a young woman to capture action on the far-off stage area. His first reaction was to disdain not only her limited camera but to catalogue all her most heinous errors in composition, exposure, and use of flash, as he mentally predicted how poor her results would be and how she was, essentially, wasting her time.
Then something shifted in his thinking. Instead of being depressed at what hadn’t worked, the woman’s energy revealed that she was actually making the most of the moment; learning, through trial and error, what to do or not do in future. At the end of his essay, he came to realize that “she is a better photographer than me”, since she was taking risks, pushing the limits of her own skills, and developing her craft, one frame at a time, while he had left his own camera at home and was learning nothing. His point hit home with me, since it is a recurring theme of this blog and a key belief among those I respect most in the imaging world.
Shoot. Shoot some more. Dare to fail. Be willing to take more “bad” pictures than the next guy. Get your head out of academic minutia and into the doing of it. Screw up, suck up, but above all, show up.
Ready to play.
Sometimes, just the sheer unwillingness to go home empty-handed provides you with real delight. Last week, I was making the rounds at an area gallery district, the type that does nightly “art walks” as a way of speed-dating potential customers. Many of the best shots I get in these surroundings are near or just after dark, and I always like peeping into the windows of shuttered businesses at night, since some key character of light and mood invariably occurs. For the shot shown above, I fell in love with one gallery that had a kind of sentry posted outside, in the form of an enormous sculpted head. Its aloof expression reminded me of a cross between Easter Island and Blue Man Group, and I really wanted him/her/it to be a part of the shot. However, I had not brought an external flash unit with me, and the sculpture was reading 100% dark in contrast to the interior of the gallery. I was desperate, but not desperate enough to use straight-on pop-up flash, which would have blown the face out completely and destroyed any chance at a moody feel.
Time to improvise.
Having left my bounce card at home as well (I was on foot and truly traveling light), I noticed that the head was underneath a low over-hanging porch roof, something you just must have on the front of an Arizona business in summer. Going totally into what-the-hell mode, I stuck my flat left hand just under the bottom of the pop-up flash and angled it upward about 15 degrees to create a crude bounce off the roof ceiling, allowing the light to soften as it came down upon the top of the head. It took a few tries to avoid creating an uber-white Aurora Borealis effect on the ceiling, and I had to move my feet around to figure out how to get some of the light to cascade down the head’s front and illuminate its features. I also had to bump the ISO up a bit to compensate for the fall-off in the flash at the distance I was standing, but, at the end, I at least got something. Moreover, like the woman at the concert, what I had picked up in technique more than compensated me for the fact that the shot wasn’t strictly an award winner.
I have been playing around with primitive flash bouncing for a while now, and the results run the gamut from god-awful to glad-I-did-that. But it’s all a win no matter how each individual shot plays out, because every image brings me closer to the cumulatively evolved instinct that, someday, will give me great pictures. The baby will eventually be born, but the midwife has to do the front-end work. Nothing I will ever shoot will be captured under perfect conditions, so why drop dead of old age waiting for that to happen? We’re almost to the end of Century Two in this game of writing with light, and all the easy pictures have already been shot, so what’s left will have to be hewed out by hand.
I suggest that we occasionally get our nose out of books (and, duh, blogs too) and start carving.
ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS of shooters is, “what’s that supposed to be?”, usually asked of any image that is less obvious than a sunset shot of the Eiffel Tower or a souvenir snap of Mount Rushmore. You may have found, in fact, that the number of times that the question is asked is directly proportional to how intensely personal your vision is exercised on a given project. As much as the hidden aspects of life fascinate us, the obvious recording of familiar objects soothe the eye, like a kind of ocular comfort food. The farther you wander in your own direction as a photographer, the greater journey you also ask of your viewers. Sometimes the invitation is taken. Sometimes you must face “the question”.
What’s that supposed to be?
How, actually, in a world shaped by our own subjective experience, an image is “supposed” to be anything is a little baffling. It’s probably safe to say that what we present, as artists is probably supposed to be the view as one’s mind filters it through his or her accumulated life. When we use the camera as a mere recorder, it may make it easier, presenter-to-viewer, to agree on that image’s terms of engagement, but that may or may not reveal what we actually felt about when creating it. If I use the same three colors to render a picture of the American flag as everyone else uses, I may get into fewer arguments about how appropriate the resulting image is, but then, I don’t get to open up the discussion to any other conceptions of that flag. Back in the first days of the environmental movement, the simple use of green on the original, Old-Glory-derived ecology flag suggested an alternative way of being American, of living your life. As I recall, some viewed the design as sacrilegious, while others embraced it as liberating.
Over 150 years after the first photographs were regarded as a threat to the painter’s domain, we are still most at ease with pictures that ape the painting’s method for framing the world. Oddly, it is always outlaws and amateurs that break free of these pictorial chains first; the professionals must protect the turf they have so carefully mapped out for themselves in the mainstream. There remains, then, an ongoing battle over what should or should not be called a “picture”. Abstractions, arranged or perceived patterns, even selected details or drastic re-imaginings of small parts of the so-called “actual” world must always fight for their place at the table alongside the technically accurate mirroring of easily named subjects. We still regard that which is realistic as being the most real, and the most worthy of praise.
To want to show something for its own sake on our own terms is to move into more personal territory, and hence onto shakier ground for critical evaluation, but occasionally we strike a balance between what people want to see and what we must show. In the above image, I only wanted to focus attention on an arrangement that was a very small and visually ignored accent along a heavily travelled public street. An unsung landscaper’s arrangement of tiles, gravel, paving rock, and succulent plants, was in plain view, and yet, at only a few inches in height, easily missed by the thousands of daily passersby speeding along the street. To me, when framed close to ground level, it resembled a kind of desert cityscape, blocks of abstract skyscrapers, a cactus metropolis, and that’s how I tried to frame and process it. Of course, it us, after all, just a pattern, and anyone who looks at the image can fill in their own blanks with impressions that are just as valid as my kind of toy idea.
The vital point is that no one else’s take on your dream can be wrong, just because it differs with yours. Art is not a science, which is why we don’t become photographers, or as the word implies, “light writers” just by pushing a button.
We become photographers by pushing everyone’s buttons.
What is it “supposed to be”? You tell me, and I’ll tell you.