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It’s easy to look at things. We do it constantly without giving it much thought. It gets us through the day. But how often do you stop to really see what you’re looking at?
The Essence of Photography: Seeing and Creativity says a photographer cannot be a casual observer. A photographer has to look for the relationships within a scene, whether that scene is a studio setup, a street scene, a landscape, an architectural setting, or any other scene you can conceive of. A photographer has to see the relationships among the numerous objects in the scene in terms of form, line, tone, and color, and he must see those relationships within the three-dimensional vista in front of his eyes. He must recognize how forms, lines, tones, and colors in the foreground work with those in the middle distance and in the background. A photographer has to notice that moving six inches to the right may create a better set of form relationships in the three-dimensional field in front of his eyes. A photographer has to see how a portrait subject may stand out against either a black or white background, or if he or she would perhaps look better against a more complex interior, exterior, or landscape background that may say more about the person than a simple, nondescript background. A photographer has to recognize that every type of light has its merits and its problems. Light that is perfect for one type of scene may be inappropriate for another.
Creativity in light
Recognizing the difference between light that enhances a scene and light that detracts from the scene takes experience. Because a camera records only light, the photographer has to learn to see light, and understand how light brings out or destroys the lines, forms, tonalities, colors, dimensionality, and all other aspects of a scene. Learning to see light requires experience because we’re really geared to see objects. That’s what we’ve done since we were born. A baby learns to see mommy, daddy, and other things of importance as he grows, but he tends not to see mommy or anything else as a set of light levels. He doesn’t learn to see relationships of lines or forms or shapes—for example, the oval of mommy’s face in relationship to the oval of daddy’s face—rather he learns to see and distinguish the features of the face itself. So learning to see objects in a given scene as light values and lines, forms, and shapes, and learning to see the relationships among them, is clearly not a natural act. You really have to learn to see photographically.
This is difficult because our eyes do not see the way a camera sees. As you peruse a scene with your eyes, your irises open a bit to let in more light from the darkest parts of the scene, and close a bit to moderate the intensity from the brightest parts of the scene. So, in essence, you’re viewing every scene at multiple apertures. But when you snap the shutter on a camera, the entire scene is recorded at the single aperture you set. Unless you understand the technical aspects of controlling contrast via the process you have chosen (traditional film exposure or digital capture), you may lose a lot of the information that you expect to see in your image.
Complicating this issue further is the fact that a camera has a single lens, while your eyes see every scene with binocular vision, meaning that your left and right eye combine to recognize depth, which is not possible with a camera. Try looking at a complex scene with one eye closed and you’ll see that the scene tends to lose a large degree of depth. If you want to convey a sense of depth in a photograph, you have to learn how the one-eyed camera sees the scene under various types of light, and recognize which type of light helps bring out that depth.
None of this is easy to learn. Amazingly, most folks feel that if you have a camera in hand you’re a photographer. But that’s like saying that everyone with a pen in hand is a writer. It’s just not so. Photography can be deceptively difficult. Some people may have innate talent, and it comes more easily to them.
I have heard time and time again from people inquiring about my workshops, or from first time students, that they “have a good eye.” Some people do. Most of the time they really mean that they can identify a beautiful scene. And while I hate to burst their bubble, it turns out that virtually anyone can spot a beautiful scene. Very few people going into Yosemite Valley for the first time fail to notice its beauty. But most people take this to mean that they have a good eye. Not so. Having a good eye means that you can recognize relationships between forms that almost jump out at you when you look at a scene from one location, but that don’t appear to be quite as strong from a slightly different location. Having a good eye means that you can recognize when certain lighting or weather conditions make a scene quite extraordinary, whereas other lighting or weather conditions render it rather ordinary. Having a good eye means you can quickly spot an unusual and particularly interesting scene on a busy street corner in the midst of the typical nondescript hustle and bustle that occurs most of the time. Having a good eye means you can see when a specific type and direction of lighting on a person’s face, perhaps coupled with an interesting turn of the head, makes a powerful portrait, rather than the typical portrait we see from most commercial studios, or the portraits of “important people” giving an “important speech” shown on page 6 of your daily newspaper.
To create good photographs, you have to learn to see the light and the relationships within a scene. You have to learn to see with your two eyes the way a camera sees, with a single eye and a single aperture setting. It would be great if the camera could learn to see the way you do, but unfortunately, that’s not an option.
Personal interests mirror creativity
As you learn the ropes of seeing light and seeing relationships, you also have to find both your subject matter and your rhythm. Ansel Adams was drawn to the land, and more specifically to the mountains, and his best photographs are undoubtedly his powerful mountain and landscape images. He may have been a good portrait photographer, but it’s unlikely he would have been as good as he was with landscapes, and he probably wouldn’t have built the reputation he did. August Sander may have been a good landscape photographer, but it is his portraits of working-class Germans that are astounding, perturbing, penetrating images. These photographers and all of the other great photographers were drawn to specific subject matter that had heightened meaning to them, and they walked away from other subjects. That’s why their work is so outstanding.
My interests expanded from landscapes alone to abstracts, and then to monumental ancient architecture. Throughout my photographic career I have continued to expand upon existing interests without losing my previous interests. This has worked well for me. Others take a very different approach. Some start with a single interest and remain focused on it throughout their career. Some skip from interest to interest, dropping the previous one as they latch onto a new one. Some start with a variety of interests, and gradually narrow them down to one or two interests that remain with them for a lifetime. Which is the correct approach? Which is wrong? It turns out they are all correct. None of them is more correct than another. The approach you use has to work for your interests. What has worked well for me may not be good for you, or for another photographer, and vice versa. This is all part of finding your interests and your groove, and it has nothing to do with anyone else’s groove. It’s recognizing that your interests can change, expand, or become more specific. It’s understanding that you are the only one who can determine what you want to do photographically. Only you can determine how you want your photograph to look, what you want to show, what you want to avoid, what you want to emphasize, and what you want to de-emphasize—in other words, what you want your photograph to say. It’s yours, and you’ll find your proper voice and groove in time.
Some photography instructors try to push a student toward a single area of interest. I don’t agree with this approach. We’re multifaceted people. We have more than one interest in life; why can’t we have more than one interest in our photography?
Creative images come from photographic rhythm
Some photographers have to go to an area, explore it, get to know it, and learn how to depict it over time before they can produce their best images. It’s a process of growing and learning. I’ve seen several photographers go through this evolution, where their first images were not terribly interesting, even though they were falling all over themselves with enthusiasm for the subject matter. But as time went on, they tuned in and their images became progressively more interesting, more refined, and more insightful. They found their groove, and then they moved through it with immense power, grace, and finesse.
Harrison Branch, the long-time chair of the photography department at Oregon State University, will explore a location that is new to him without any camera in hand. If he finds an area to be of interest, he will go back, again without a camera, to gain deeper insights into the location and its nuances. Finally, after several visits, he’ll take his camera with him to photograph the area.
Harrison’s approach is very different from mine. In fact, I could not work the way Harrison works. At workshops we’ve taught together, we have discussed our differences with our students. I generally see things and respond quickly and strongly, or I really don’t respond at all. When visiting a new area, I tend to make my most powerful images right from the start. As I continue to explore the possibilities within the region, I work my way toward finding more subtle imagery.
I don’t know why I tend to see strongly from the very start, but I do. I find this tendency time and time again. Which approach is right; my quick response to an area or Harrison’s afdeliberate analysis of an area? They’re both right. Harrison’s is perfect for him. He knows his rhythm and he works best in that manner. I know mine, and I work best within my manner of seeing. You have to find your own. It’s quite likely that Harrison’s approach and my approach are at the extremes, and others’ lie somewhere in between. That’s fine. You have to work at your own speed and leisure, and with your own rhythm. Doing anything else throws you off your game. You have to find your comfort zone.
Your equipment affects creativity
In many ways, digital photography has turned the usual approach to photography on its head. It used to be that a photographer would look and then shoot, taking time to compose the image and look for important relationships within the scene before tripping the shutter, even if it was as rapid-fire as street photography. Today, most digital photographers shoot and then look. They expose the image first, then look at the display on the camera back to see what they captured. Digital cameras make it easy to proceed in that manner because if you’re not pleased with the image you’ve captured, you can simply delete it. You can’t do that with film, where the exposure is permanent and you have to move on to the next frame. Digital photography certainly frees you up to do more shooting, but it’s a double-edged sword because it also allows you to do a lot of really bad shooting.
That’s not what I would call shooting in a rhythm; it’s wishing and hoping, pressing a button and seeing what happened later. There’s no personal rhythm there. It’s pure quantity, with the hope that some quality may be hidden within. I have to admit to deleting a few digital exposures along the way myself, but almost exclusively because of things such as contrast that I originally felt was within the range of the exposure but turned out to be too high, or other such issues that I didn’t expect; not so much because of poor composition or a serious distraction within the image.
The Essence of Photography
The story doesn’t have to end here. Learn to express yourself through photography in a way that is meaningful and even lasting. It’s about visual exploration, experimentation, and personal satisfaction. It’s about encountering a scene, created or found, and recognizing the potential for personal expression within it. It’s about creating photographic imagery that may have the lasting power of an Ansel Adams, an Edward or Brett Weston, a Cornell Capa, an Imogen Cunningham, or a Sabastião Salgado.
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