It all started with a conversation with someone much younger than me (and face it, most people are). She showed me a photo she loved, a sweet image that reminded me of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Madonna. When I pointed that out, she admitted never having heard of her before, but then immediately recognized the famous photograph when I showed it to her with a quick Google search. And this gave me pause to reflect. Iconic images may resonate onward through the generations, but the people who made them? Not so much. I’m a little saddened by that.
Truth is, I can only think of three photographs that can claim true iconic status in the American canon: the Migrant Madonna, most certainly; Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal, and Earthrise, taken from the Apollo 8 capsule on its way to the moon. You may have one or two on your own list, too (I sometimes think of Ansel Adam’s Moonrise photo as iconic, but probably just among us photographers). But these three posses an undeniable universality.
I can’t help but think that when a photograph achieves this level of iconic status, the emotional punch — and the photographer’s own story — gets lost somewhere along the line. It’s the iconography of a commemorative postage stamp, perhaps, or an inspirational meme, but not human triumph and tragedy, and that’s what those photographers saw and shared with us.
Well I suppose in the long scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. Any photograph you look upon is a rorschach, and if you pay it any attention you’ll bring to it your own experiences and biases, your likes and dislikes, and read into it what you will. Plus, the events these represent — the Great Depression, WWII, the race to the moon — are so far removed from us today that the men and women who took them have just naturally faded into the background.
And that’s alright with me. None of us in the creative arts can reliably expect not to fade away, ourselves. As for me, I haven’t photographed anything more culturally significant or artistically revolutionary than the contours of my own (admittedly off-kilter) mind. No earth-risings, no flag-raisings; just quiet moments with me and my camera. And maybe that’s all those photographers expected, too.
It’s just that the world happened to get in their way.
I’m not one to start an argument. Being raised the middle child of seven kids, conflict avoidance is pretty much my middle name. There’s noting wrong with a good debate, and I’ve certainly been known to put my two cents in, but otherwise I’m content to let the other guys take the stage. What brings me to this karmic conundrum is an argument (or perhaps just a heated discussion) that has surfaced only recently in my on-line wanderings, and which I’ve put forth to my colleagues over a few cold beers. And now to you. It goes like this: these images people make on their smartphones, uncounted millions of them, flooding the cloud, taking enormous amounts of space, rarely if ever printed … should we still call this photography?
There are those who take this deadly serious, but I confess to a lack of urgency in its resolution. I mean, really. I can’t help but hear in it a not-so subtle smack of elitism. The argument seems to be made mostly by established practitioners of the photographic arts, well-informed and experienced. Photography is their livelihood, as it is for many of my friends, and I can more easily understand it when they perceive threats to that, as surely an easy access to the craft may be. But calling the process something else does little to change it. You won’t keep the wolf away from your door by calling it a dog.
Nonetheless, it’s obvious to everyone — everyone — that something has radically changed. The ubiquity of the smartphone, and the ease with which it helps to take those millions of un-printed images, does give us reason to re-appraise the medium, if not re-name it outright. But not all images are mindless, if indeed any of them truly are. Taking pictures with a smartphone (or for that matter, any digital camera set on automatic) can be just as serious, and thoughtful, and meditative, as any creative act.
So maybe it comes down to confusing creativity with productivity, or spontaneity with carelessness. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but it’s risky philosophically and, yes, semantically. I mean, what would we call it? Smartphoneography? Auto-art? It all seems a bit silly and clumsy. Besides, who’s paying it any attention? Well, me, obviously, but truth is, photography belongs to whomever is aware of the passage of time. Call it whatever the heck you want.
You won’t get any argument from me.
I own a lot of photography gear, far too much by some reckoning. I still have some old and in the way film cameras, 35mm and medium format, mostly just gathering dust. And, of course, my digital cameras, a handful of DSLRs and a small but useful mirrorless system. So I guess you could say I’m covered, but no photographer worth his or her salt ever rests contentedly without longing for just one more thing, and boy howdy there’s always more cool stuff I’d like to own.
So this winter I traded in my trusty iPhone (for the record, a 7Plus) for the wickedly alluring XsMax, Apple’s biggest and baddest bad boy. I certainly didn’t need one; no one on this planet does, but that’s hardly the point. I had lust in my heart for its capable camera.
And therein lies my uneasiness, fully of my own fault and failings. Whether through laziness or expedience, I have let it take over nearly all my photographic adventuring. No, not in the studio, nor in the clinic, but I do less and less of that work now anyways. As I wind down my daily grind in preparation for an honest retirement, I’m out on walkabouts and wandering more and more, and exactly for those I bought my mirrorless camera a few years ago. Now, however, I find that I leave the house with nothing more elaborate than that iPhone, and it usually carries the day.
Does it do a great job? Of course it does, but … not always, and it’s that not always part that sticks in me. Sure, it’s the camera that’s always with me, and I’ve captured some spontaneous and serendipitous images I might never have been able to beforehand. But that’s not necessarily why I’m a photographer, nor, I suspect, are you, mis amis. Candid is fine, but what I seek is a more thoughtful creation of an image, the building of a photograph. Its resolution may not be evident to me for days, even weeks maybe, but its discovery will thrill the hell out of me. I need lenses to choose from, robust RAW files, and the facility of exposure and color and focus at my command. I need my eye pressed up against a viewfinder, the rest of the world blocked out and silent. I have to stand behind a camera to get there.
I have lust in my heart for that capable camera, too.
Things are interesting on the edges. And I’m speaking photographically, it’s not that I’m living on the edge, mind you. This isn’t a testament to my sanity, such as it is. No, after a lifetime in photography - learning, teaching, making a living - I’m uniquely unqualified to speak in any terms other than visual. And visually, all the interesting things are on the edges.
Edges, of course, must mean there are centers, and there, I think, are where the uninteresting photos dwell. And you’ve seen them - that tree, that mountain, in broad daylight, no shadows, no mystery, no excitement. Even a brilliant sunset is usually a photo from the center. If it’s the color only, without context, the eye quickly grows tired of it and looks for other sources of entertainment. I want to see what that sunset is shining on. I want to find its edge.
It’s what I mean when I say I’m always looking for that perfect light: it’s fleeting and frustrating and subject to the vagaries of time and space. Its the yin and yang of light and shadow, where a landscape hides as much as it reveals, where the soft shading of a human face plays with our emotions, where the last moment of a setting sun is captured in the inky blackness of a watery foreground.
Maybe I’m over-thinking it; I usually do. Maybe summer and winter are just center months, and I need to wait out my dulled senses for the edge months of spring and fall to come back around. That’s when the light is changing, the seasons are in flux, and our visual worlds get turned upside-down. It’s zen photography, and the zen of photography, and it occupies my head and heart.
I’ll just keep on wandering and looking, no matter what. In a former life I’d have said I’m fueled by coffee and dektol, but now I’m just fueled by coffee and, well, more coffee. But I know I’ll always find light that is good and interesting and edgy. On occasion it’ll even be perfect. Kurt Vonnegut said “Out on the edge you can see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” So my advice is to take his, and stand as close to that edge, camera at the ready, as you can.
Try not to fall.
I had a lot of topics I wanted to write about the past few days. It’s my favorite time of year for photography, the rains have returned to my hometown, and there’s a bunch of cool new things I want to buy. But it was a conversation I had with a friend a few days back that gave me pause to reflect; we were talking about the things we really love about photography. You know, the history, the iconic images, the technology, digital cameras, that sort of thing. Then she asked me, where’s my favorite place to go to take pictures? Hmm. Had to take a long pull on my beer and think about that one. Good question.
I mean, after all, I am a wanderer. I love to travel, I love to pick up and go. I had some great trips this year — the midwest, southern California, the mountains, the ocean — and plans for more. It’s hard to sit still. But I don’t think that I ever travel for the express purpose of taking pictures, rather, it’s a happy by-product of enjoying the newness of a good escape. I wander and I take pictures. It’s a subtle distinction, granted, but totally the point.
It’s not the dramatic I seek. Sure, I love the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, the Grand Canal. They’re beautiful, and I’ll happily wait for some good light and look for some good angles. But what compels me to make a photograph is not that. I’m drawn to the small, the intimate, the quiet voice, the magic light, the music, the whisper. That may well be a thousand miles away, but it may also be in my back yard.
It’s worth remembering that photographs are made with our eyes and our hearts; cameras just move the process along. Every experience we’ve had in our lives, every person known and loved, and yes, every place we’ve ever been will have an impact on how we’ll take our next photo. Wandering is an integral part of that, so let’s also include shoe leather and coffee.
So where, then, do I really like to go wandering for photography? Actually, everywhere imaginable.
And nowhere in particular.
Do bloggers take the summer off? In my case, I guess they do, but a vacation from just what, I’m not sure. Mine’s not the sort of life from which one needs often to escape, at least not every day. It’s not perfect, but it is a preamble to retirement, with lots of good coffee, plenty of beer, and more than the occasional walkabout. And oh yes, the occasional need to bring in a couple of bucks.
So off we went, my family and I, to the central Oregon coast. September is a good month to go explore out there; the weather is fine, the light is beautiful, and the crowds have thinned out to manageable levels. And this time, I made a conscious effort to pack along some camera gear. Let me explain.
On my many wanderings of late, I’ve seen fit to carry along nothing more than my iPhone (a 7Plus) and sometimes an attachable wide-angle lens. Even my week in Chicago this year (which happily included a Blackhawks game) was photographed by this, and nothing more. It does a beautiful job, and allows me to feel more engaged in the moment. Then again, it might just be tiresome old age and an unforgiving back.
But this time I packed my mirrorless Fuji, and kept it with me on every walk. It truly does create a marvelous file, and my three lenses provide all the coverage I could ask for. In fact, lens versatility is really the great advantage of a camera system over a smartphone. But here’s the thing: I went to a mirrorless camera to reduce the weight and complexity of my Canon system; I was already down-sizing.
And before that Canon system, I was shooting with a couple of Nikon film cameras and a whole pack-full of lenses. Remember, these were solid metal cameras, but my back was younger and stronger. And around that same time, I was out there shooting with a Mamiya RB67, a weighty medium format camera and a couple of huge lenses and tripod. A really big tripod. And before that, my monorail 4x5 and a coupe of lenses. And before that, a magnificent flat-bed Burke & James 8x10 camera, for which I had (and could really only afford) one lens, but it was a doozy.
You can see that my progress through life as a photographer has been not only to learn and grow, but also and equally to shed weight and travel as light as possible. Each of these influences the other. I don’t know how much lighter and faster I could go, but if my glasses could become a good camera I’d give that serious thought. Because this is what it’s really about: the need to make images, not to project one. The more gear I shed, I find, the more impactful is my photography. The moments are clearer, more immediate. And I’m having enormous fun.
But of course now I’m starting to sound a little preachy, and I’ll have none of that. Some of my best friends are dedicated gear heads, and I admire them for the effort. Shoot and share, says I.
As for me, I’ll just take the rest of the summer off.
I'm reading a delightful book on photography. Ok, that's not such a stretch, so let me explain. I love books about photography and photographers, and even the occasional nuts-and-bolts kind of thing. There's always something to learn. But I find myself moving into uncharted territory, and so far it's a pretty incredible trip.
The book in question is Zen Camera: Creative Awakening With A Daily Practice In Photography by David Ulrich (Watson-Guptill, 2018). Yeah, not the usual f/stop and shutter-speed kind of thing, but one with much deeper implications than your typical how-to.
I have long been a practitioner of zen photography, I just wasn't aware of it. When you make your living at it, you sometime go on auto-pilot. But here's the thing: the yin-yang of creativity is pretty compelling. On the one hand, it is autobiographical: it is a statement to the world, a reply to the universe. On the other, it is intensely private, a singular moment of personal reflection. Photography in particular is built upon a lifetime of these moments.
I see pictures constantly throughout the day; some are virtual and remain in my mind, while many others compel me (often unconsciously) to bring the camera to my eye. When this becomes your meditation, it's no longer possible not to see. "The camera" says the wonderful Dorothea Lange, "is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." This is my practice of zen photography. This is what's starting to make sense.
I have my own students now, informally, mostly, though I am forever a student myself. I do my best to lead them astray. Really, we're all just a bunch of happy wanderers. I hope they -- and you, as well -- keep developing a life-long vision and philosophy about what is beautiful and honest. Your eye will always be looking inward and outward, forwards and sideways. I'm working on it myself, and so I hit the books from time to time. I really like them.
Even the nuts-and-bolts kind of thing.
Photography, we're being told, is good for your head. Well, more specifically, the act of taking a photograph, good or bad. This bit of happy news comes to us by way of a recent article I found on PetaPixel (one of my favorite sources for all things photography) by one Michael Zhang, and it aims to make us feel good about something we've been doing all along. At least that's the idea.
Apparently the trick is to "shoot every day and post online". Guilty as charged, but not sure I feel any better for the effort. Then again, I'm nobody's poster child for good mental heath. Most life-long photonistas probably aren't. But this behavior, according to research, does in fact seem to promote wellness and general mental health. The key is the sharing part. We don't create in a vacuum. Even back before social media we were desperate for ways to showcase our work.
I don't doubt there's something to all this, and it's instructive to figure out what it is. I take photos every day, and as most of you know, I'm not shy about sharing them online, either. Moreover, it's something I have long encouraged all my young photography friends to do also, though less in the spirit of mental health than in this is what we do. It doesn't need to make us feel warm and fuzzy, but in the end that's hardly the point. Creativity is a must, and it often comes at a price.
Photography should force us to challenge ourselves, creatively and intellectually, and that often takes us to uncomfortable places. It is here we grapple with our demons, and all the posting in the world will not assuage them, but one hopes we become better in the process.
And that, I do believe, is the point: to embrace the moment, to reach deep down inside and find something there worth the telling. It ain't always easy, but it is always necessary.
And in the long run, who knows. Maybe it'll be good for your head.
I wonder what became of The Zone System. Remember that? Developed by none other than Ansel Adams, It was a powerful way to pre-visualize a black & white print before making the exposure. It required accurately measuring the light in a given scene and adjusting the development of the negative to control for the desired values in the highlights and shadows. It was pretty neat. I lived and died by it. But then, I had a lot of time on my hands.
Obviously, it did not celebrate serendipity. It was a tightly controlled process, anticipating an ideal future image, and that was ok. It worked. I spent many years with Tri-X and Edwal FG7, making black & white prints I remain proud of. But boy, sometimes that seems like it was a lifetime ago, and in fact it was.
I don't have any black & white film anymore, nor my really cool darkroom. I have software and the barely refined sensibilities of a zen photographer. The Zone System, as a photographic device, so refined, so elegant, seems now like an out-of-phase anachronism, at least to the way I approach photography today. But are there not lessons we can still take from it? I think there are.
The process broke down light into nine distinct, measurable units of gray, proceeding from pure black to pure white, with graduating shades in between, each predictably metered. You controlled where you wanted a particular shade (and of course its corresponding degree of detail) to fall in the print by controlling how you developed the negative. Selecting paper grade and other considerations were mastered as well, and this is but a light glossing over of the system, but you get the idea. If you were paying attention, what you learned was not so much about light meters and chemistry, but indeed how to look and really see. And what you saw was what light is, and what it does.
Chance, as Adams and others have said, favors the prepared mind. Without understanding and appreciating what light is, and what it does, there is no serendipity, no moment to capture alive and breathing. The magic of light, all of it -- tones, values, textures, mysteries and whispers -- resides deep in my soul. The Zone System taught me this.
It's my Zen System.
You wouldn't think winter is a great time to travel, but it's actually a great time to hit the road and reflect on the view. And I'm not talking tropical vacay, no; my latest little walkabout was a late winter/early spring jaunt to the cold climes of Chicago -- one of my favorite places any time of the year. Visiting family there is a joy I look forward to every year, but the sublime pleasures of this city are nestled in the art galleries and museums. (There's a couple great bars there, too, but that's probably a different story.)
While wandering about the magnificent Art Institute, I found myself completely taken by a landscape painted by Camille Pissarro, considered by some the father of French Impressionism. The Chicago Art Institute houses one of the world's finest collections of Impressionism, and photographers -- even those otherwise unfamiliar with art history -- consider it influential. It's easy to see why.
As I sat there gazing at the painting, trying to lose myself within it, I was struck by its immediacy, how it captured a fleeting light, a composition at once worldly and, paradoxically, quite ordinary. It was, in a word, photographic. And this, of course, sent my mind wandering to far off places.
The Impressionists and photography came into this world at roughly the same time, and I think both have had a profound and lasting effect on each other. Art historians and scholars (if you haven't noticed, I am definitely neither) can argue this point, but I can speak for me. My earliest training and influences were all in painting, long pre-dating my entry into the photographic world, and I recognize that consciously or unconsciously I have always tried to somehow incorporate that influence into my work. I don't want my photographs to look like watercolors or oil paintings, no, but as I've gotten older in this field I've begun to recognize that I've walked down their paths too, and carried some of the dust along with me. It's been a fine and beautiful stroll.
Couple of good bars along the way too, by my reckoning.
February is a fine month. Up in these parts (the Pacific Northwest) it skirts that untidy line separating winter from spring, so the weather is always unsettled and interesting. It's just made for photography. Plus it's my birthday month so I can always count on a little celebrating and some fine añejo tequila. And it's the month I can always count on a great road trip to somewhere with my brother Jim. Nothing but good times.
2018 February fell right in line with these great expectations. Whereas last year at this time we plunged head-long into the beautiful rain from San Francisco down to Monterey Bay, this year we enjoyed some soft sunlight on the old Lewis & Clark highway along the Columbia River. The lower reaches of this great river, especially on the Washington side, are little explored but so well worth the effort.
There are two ways to wander, of course. One is wandering aimlessly, and I put a lot of stock in it. No particular place to go, no particular purpose in mind, it's a meditation and a presence. Good photography sometimes comes of it, but it's not always the point. Who looks outside, dreams; says Carl Jung; who looks inside, awakens. Sometimes you can wander aimlessly just sitting quiety by yourself.
But the second way is purposeful and celebrates good company. This is the purview of the walkabout, and I draw as much inspiration from my companions as I do from my surroundings. Good photography is often the natural result of shared enthusiasm.
So I relish my road trips with Jim, I look forward to the inspiration and the open road, and I especially love the unsettle weather -- inside and out. I love February.
Nothing but good times.
Let's review the old ways, shall we? The creation of a photographic image has always been a multi-stage process. Load the film, trip the shutter, unload the film onto stainless steel reels to develop, and then, finally, fire up the enlarger and have at it. Even in a digital world, the process is largely, if only slightly imperfectly, analogous. Insert card into reader, create folder, download images. In other words, it's always been, as Mr. Adams instructed us, a formally constructive event from beginning to end.
I have no problem with any of this, of course. In fact, I've been celebrating it for almost half a century, so I'm in no position to be critical. But I've recently discovered that the way I'm approaching my craft now has turned this paradigm upside down. I refer, of course, to my ever-expanding use of the iPhone, and my growing awareness of photography's zen. They arrived at this party in separate cars but are leaving it hand-in-hand.
What I'm embracing is the counter-intuitive way I go about creating the image now. There is no second-part after I make the exposure, no loading up the card-reader, no folders to create and label. I go everywhere with my iPhone and am constantly moved -- compelled, even -- to take pictures. These then magically appear in my Photos program on the Mac with no further effort on my part. They're just...there. It's a wholly dissociative process, and I'm happy to take creative advantage of it.
I'm allowed to actually discover, rather than re-construct, the image that had somehow captured my attention in the first place. Yes, occasionally it's disappointing (life is like that, sometimes), but more often than not it's fresh and surprising (life is like that sometimes, too). I've gone back, usually much later, to see and be moved by elements in an image that I was not really aware of at the time I took it. I'm seeing them again for the first time. And that's the point.
Photography is all about, and only about, being in the moment. I'm trying not to think about what will come after, I want only to be lost in the visual now. The discoveries will come later, and will arrive on the wings of their own moment. So I'm sorry, Ansel. I'm no longer pre-visualizing, I'm just, well...visualizing.
Whatever process you use to feed that creative voice is great and legit and possibly even groovy; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But this is what I'm using more and more to find my voice, and my zen. It's been working, it's been fun, and it's all I really need.
Well, that and good walking shoes. And coffee.
So I've already blown my New Years resolution to post a blog every week; lets just add that to my list to lose weight and cut back on the tequila. Fine ideas, noble even, but only marginally in the category of possibilities. But here I am nonetheless.
What brings me here are my reflections on a day trip my wife and I took this past weekend out to the Columbia Gorge -- specifically the Dalles and the Dalles Dam -- to witness a feeding migration of the great American bald eagle. We were invited to join a group sponsored by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, of which she is a long time member. When it came to the introductions, I mentioned that I was merely an acquaintance of said gorge, but the humor was lost on this august group so early in the morning as it was. In any event the eagles made a impressive showing.
The problem is, I'm not really a wildlife photography guy, so I don't have any wildlife-appropriate lenses. If you know me, you know I'm philosophically opposed to the mindless accumulation of photography gear. Simpler is better, says I, although deep down I'm just as much a gearhead as the rest of them. But my longest lens, a 55-200mm zoom for my Fuji, was clearly designed for non-eagle shooting (although I have some great photos of squirrels raiding our bird feeder). My wife, a watercolor artist, was appropriately outfitted with powerful binoculars and an artist's imagination. I ended up taking photos of my beautiful surroundings, and made no complaints for the opportunity. It was a gorgeous morning.
It's pretty simple and obvious, really: if you aspire to be a wildlife guy (or girl) you have to get with the program and put out the bucks for some seriously long glass. You can only get so close to a bald eagle. Or a grizzly bear, for that matter. My little 200mm lens was the proverbial knife at a gunfight. I have friends who publish world-class wildlife photography with lenses that are upwards of 10-times that humble length. And all of them enjoy getting up before sunrise with much better attitudes that mine.
As for me, I'll enjoy the ambiance. The Columbia Gorge is a treasure; it's Oregon's gift to a barely civilized world (well, that, and a Willamette Valley pinot). And oh, that river. Rain or shine, blustery winter or blue summer, it never fails to impress beyond words. I'm hardly a sentimental guy, but in all my many years of gazing upon it (including my pre-verbal childhood in Washington, the son of an adventurous father) it always takes my breath away. A humble lens can capture its many moods, and probably capture yours too; eagles are only optional. That's why this gorge, and its river, has so many friends.
Or in my case, acquaintances.
I've become a bit of a math and science nerd somewhat late in life, and I blame photography. Oh sure, I took most of the requisite classes in high school and college, but I hardly stood out as a model student. By my sophomore year in a Catholic high school -- in Wyoming, no less -- I had already moved on to pursuits more, shall we say, extracurricular than academic. I was fortunately more successful in college (and, later, graduate school) with a more committed corp of teachers, but a real and abiding interest only came about as I embraced my photography as a likely career option. More exemplary lives than mine have been sacrificed for less.
My first surprising love affair was with chemistry, a subject I enjoyed but struggled with in school. But when it came time to learn and master the darkroom, it was love at first sight. Ok, maybe second sight, but I had great training, rigorous and thorough. It went far beyond just the time-and-temperature recipes to a real grasp of why and how the chemistry works, which gave me a genuine mastery of the craft. I could make a negative sing. I spent a few wonderful years as a color-systems manager of a high-end pro lab, and mastering the mathematical and chemical intricacies of the tri-linear E6 process control (damn, I love the sound of that!) brought out my ultimate and unapologetic geek.
And if I can put on my grandpa hey-you-kids-get-the-hell-off-my-lawn hat for an indulgent minute, I would be remiss not to make at least a passing comment on our pre-automation years. We made spot-on exposure calculations in real time, right inside our little heads, with that old ISO (well, back then it was ASA) and distance-to-subject formula. It's algebra, and it's necessary, just like Sister Mary Pat said it would, back in 10th grade. Solve for x, dude. It ain't rocket science.
Don't get me wrong, I'm just as happy to have TTL and multimeters as you are. I've even come to rely on the Aperture-priority mode on my little Fuji. And that, I think, is the point: let your inner geek embrace the technology, rather than the other way around. Knowing the process and understanding the principles of our craft is what makes it art. Just because it's digital and not a messy tray of Dektol doesn't mean it's less demanding. You don't have to solve for x, because it's standing right there in front of you, quietly moving you onward:
You've come this far, pilgrim. Now what?
I'm not sure who it was that said that success was 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration, but it sounds like poor hygiene, even if the math is right. When I stated in my last blog that I try to see at lest 100 photos every day, I created a minor stir. How is that possible, I was asked, and for heaven's sake ... why? It's pretty simple, actually. Perspiration comes with the territory. What I'm after is that elusive 2%.
When I was coming of age in photography, the Group f64 ethos of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others was starting to give way to a post-modern vibe, which I never came to fully embrace. Or fully understand, for that matter, but I'm old school and a little thick. The iconic image of the era, stuck forever in my mind, is Weston's famous photograph of a bell pepper: simple, straightforward, infinitely complex. By trying to reproduce it ourselves, mere novitiates, we learned a lot about photography -- lighting, posing, darkroom technique, printing -- and sometimes, something about ourselves. It was always more than just a pepper. Art as rorschach.
Visit any great art museum in any city and what will you find? Students, canvases on easels or pen & paper on a lap, trying for all their might to copy the great masters. Their aim isn't forgery, of course, but to practice the techniques and style that so captivates them that they may, in turn, be better artists themselves. It's always been thus; great teachers encourage it, as did mine. The student who fails to surpass his master, Michelangelo himself once said, fails his master.
So here I am looking at 100 pictures a day, mostly (but not exclusively) photographs and mostly (but not exclusively) anything but peppers. The interwebs make this a pretty easy deal. 500px, ViewBug, google searches for modern trends in portraits or award-winning landscapes are just starting points. I'm surrounded by books and a ton of magazines, too -- most are predictably tech-centric, but others (like Black & White Magazine) -- are gems. And of course my friends, acquaintances, and fellow trolls on Facebook and Instagram are constantly mined for inspiration, as well as real brick-and-mortar galleries and museums. Nothing beats a beautiful, original photographic print in all its authentic glory.
And that's about all I know, but I'm still something of a hack. I'm happily working on it, and that's why I'm maybe just a wee bit obsessed with looking at all the photos I possibly can in this lifetime (no telling what I may be content with in the next) and making a few of my own. Photography is funny thing to be obsessed with. The more pictures we take, the more we need still to explore: in the studio, on the streets, in our heads. The 2% greases the skids.
The rest just makes me sweat.
This may sound like I'm selling out, but here goes anyway. Well, maybe not full-blown blasphemy, but certainly my contrarian side will be again in full view. And all this while i'm really in a pretty good mood too. The summer is finally over. Now I can get some work done.
And here's what's been on this cranky mind: a couple of articles I read online worrying about the state of creative photography these days when everyone -- everyone -- is walking around with every manner of imaging device, the thought being that ubiquity was cheapening the field. Practitioners themselves are living with a big dose of self-doubt, too. A young friend confessed to me last week that, absent training and a really good camera, he wasn't sure that what he was doing could legitimately be called photography. Well of course it is, and more power to ya.
But the argument goes back a long, long way; all the way to the beginning. Creative imaging, of course, was limited to what the trained human hand could put down on canvas or paper, so the invention of mechanical devices and their constituent chemistry fully democratized the creative process. Any person clever enough (and patient enough) could now produce a marketable image. Painters must indeed have felt their livelihoods, if not their egos, threatened.
Though it was George Eastman who cemented the imaging revolution in the popular mind, the pandemic of digital technology gave it its universal weight. The sheer enormity of the number of images being made daily -- hourly -- is indeed overwhelming and may otherwise bury the gems that still come through, but gems there are, and they're worth seeking out. As I told my friend, I make it a point to see at least 100 photographs every day, and read at least a couple of thoughtful articles pertaining to the art and craft (and, yes, the history) of photography.
In the end, it doesn't matter a whole heck of a lot what gets your creative juices flowing. Whether you have a nifty new camera or a garden variety smartphone, pay heed to the impulse to use it. The urge to create something beautiful is so human and so necessary, and if it takes a hundred tries to get the one you want, so be it. Nobody's keeping count.
Many of us have spent our lives studying this craft and perfecting our skills to make a good living from it. This may be the path you've started down; I know I'm approaching the end of mine. But if we have in common the shared love of a beautiful photographic image and the insistent urge to create them, then we're on the same journey. Legitimately, authentically, photography.
Blasphemy, I know. Right?
Oh, and a p.s: My friend Keri helped upload my blog to Squarespace (they're the greatest!) making it more seamlessly integrated into my website and also easier to post a comment and subscribe to via email. I encourage both, and look forward to hearing from you. I love a good argument.
I began writing this post, after such a long summer's absence, in the wee hours of the morning out on the Oregon coast. We rented a little house near Otter Rock, somewhere between Depoe Bay and Newport, with stellar views of the Pacific and the night sky. After a summer of far too many heat waves and the usual stresses, the overwhelming silence and cool morning breeze are treasured beyond words. I live for these moments, ungodly early though they be.
Our coast is a photographer's dream, yet here I am at daybreak in this fine study with an equally fine view, typing out words, channeling my best Ivan Doig as he writes Winter Brothers, and not slopping down on the beach in my flip-flops seeking the magical light. I blame the coffee and the solitude; they're both great company.
But the cool thing about this visit was that we were accompanied by my two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter. The sheer delight of her seeing the ocean for the first time was just amazing. That's what's so great about kids, and what we may find instructive: they don't just live for the moment, their lives are the moment. There's no past to reflect upon, no future to fret over. There's just right now, and right now is pretty darn sweet. As a photographer, I hope to take as much delight in seeking out those beautiful moments, regardless of how the effort is teased out by reflecting and fretting. Especially the fretting. It's in my nature.
But I think I know this: if I can truly live in the moment, with or without my camera, then I can use the gift of writing, awkward though mine may be, to reflect on that moment and find peace with it. Believe it or not, I think it helps my photography. It brings that moment -- that image, what I felt at the time -- into as clear a focus as the photo itself. It helps me go forward, and it brings me some joy. It keeps me from fretting.
Just wish it wasn't so damned early.
Hold on to your hats; this coming Saturday -- August 19 -- is a pretty special day. Ok, maybe not as solemnly sentimental as Bastille Day, or as sweetly nonsensical as Valentines Day, but unless your profession has a day celebrating itself, this one rings loud and proud. It is, mis amis, World Photography Day. I don't know if there is a National Accountants Day, or a World House Painters Day; if there isn't, there should be. We should celebrate who we are, and what we do. Photographers understand this.
It's partly history, of course. The exact timeline of what we know as photography is a little murky. Somewhere in the late 1820's, a Frenchman with the unpronounceable name of Nicéphore Niépce made some non-permanent silver chloride images; actual fixing chemistry came a little later. We generally recognize 1839 as the official starting point of our craft. It was in this year that another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, announced a commercially viable process he called (wait for it...) the Daguerrotype. On August 19 of that year, the French government purchased the patent rights to the process and gave it to the world, a most unusual act of civic generosity. It makes for a fitting birthday, even if nobody knows how the heck to spell Daguerrotype without looking it up.
But history is all about reflection, not celebration, and I'm in the mood to party. Humanitarian and photography groups have formally set aside the day to create and share our photography for the common good. We're encouraged to get out there and take pictures, and there are several hosting sites where we can upload them to share. It's all well and good, even laudable, but I'm left feeling a little like the folks who only go to church on Easter: it ever so slightly misses the point.
Photography is a daily meditation, not an annual celebration, is what I say. Take photos today on your way to work. Heck, take photos at work. And tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day. And don't forget to take time to look at photography, too; online, in books, in magazines, Instagram and, yes, even Facebook. I look at tons of photos every day, everywhere I can, and a lot of them knock my socks off. I need the inspiration, I absolutely live for it, and I bet you do too. So don't forget then that this Saturday, August 19, is World Photography Day.
And you know what? Today is, too.