Thursday, August 27, 2015

In Search of an Excellent Mistake ~

A few days ago my wife sent me some iPhone pictures from Victoria BC, where she was visiting with her sister. As you can see from the lovely sample below, they appeared to have an odd blue-green cast about them, which she attributed to an old device in need of an upgrade. I, of course, attributed it my wife (an otherwise accomplished painter) having entered her Blue Period. We were both wrong. A little long-distance sleuthing determined where she had inadvertently changed a camera setting, and she was soon back to clean and predictable normality. Well, her pictures anyway. And of course, this lead me to thinking.

There are two kinds of mistakes, by my reckoning. The first one vexes us the most, because it all has to do with intentions. Through an insufficiency of experience or a lapse in attention, we miss an intended mark. It has disappointment written all over it. As photographers, this is where we fret over the details, because a lack of precision often leads to a lack of clients. We learn technology and practice technique over and over, trying to achieve zen-like perfection so we can hit our targets with apparent effortlessness. This is where craftsmanship comes from.

But the second kind of mistake is the one we should make from tie to time, but seldom do. It has about it the sublime grace of the unpredictable. It's not altogether concerned about the target you've set, because it sets its own, and takes you along for the ride. You may be rightly concerned about the proper rules of composition, of lighting, of posing -- you have, after all, spent a lifetime learning them. That's the point. You've begun to arrive at a place where those are seamlessly integrated into your way of thinking, and your way of seeing. Now go ahead and point your camera in any direction the fates lead you. You'll be happily surprised.

Serendipity happens only by mistake, but its one where the universe tips the scales in your favor for once. This is your Blue Period. This is where art comes from.

If I'm not mistaken.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

On Truth, Beauty and Caffeine ~

Truth and beauty. Beauty and truth. Keats said they're pretty much one in the same, but sometimes I wonder. At least, when it comes to photography. When it comes to the essays on art that I stumble upon past midnight, the complimentarity of truth and beauty seems to be breezily assumed, but when the writer turns his or her attention to modern photography, all bets are off. And this bugs the hell out of me. I'm in no mood to ponder deep thoughts so early in the morning, so I'm left to figure out why the stark, post-modern landscapes of, say, Robert Adams somehow expose us to the hard light of truth, but his contemporary Robert Glenn Ketchum reveals to us the beauty in the same world. I mean, how is this even possible? I haven't even had my coffee yet.

Truth and beauty probably are just two sides of a coin, neither existing without the other: complimentary, wave and particle. I can't imagine either one canceling out the other, and I've never seen that happen in any of the countless photographs I have seen in my lifetime. The argument may keep critics and philosophers in business, but it doesn't do us photographers any favors. What I want to know is this: how does it inform my own photography? Does it affect the way I see the world I inhabit right here, right now?

I can't possibly see the world in rule of thirds, or golden ratios, or perfect fibonacci spirals. I see images and moments; they're around me all the time, I see them everywhere, even my dreams. Maybe only in my dreams, who knows. Like I said, it's 2 in the morning and I need coffee. But that's what informs my work, and I've given up all control over it. Everywhere I look I see beauty.

And that's the truth.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Hammers and Nails and Pixels ~

A good conversation can lead you down some interesting paths every bit as easily as a roadmap and good shoes. I ought to know. I spend a lot of time talking when I should be working, but I come by this failing with the best of intentions, and such was the case this week in the studio. While working on a project with a friend and fellow photographer, one much younger than I (and really, who isn't?)  the conversation turned to the way I started out in photography, and the profession as it was "back in the day." He put forth the proposition that there was a fundamental difference between the photography then and photography now, the digital revolution being the uncrossable Styx dividing the two eras. Anyone now, goes the argument, can have a camera (iPhone, etc) and put their shingle out. The older era required an unrealistic level of craftsmanship that in a digital world seems like the fourth wheel of a tricycle: unnecessary, and out of definition.

I call bullshit.

The inexpensive architecture of cameras, though perhaps more limited in scope, made them just as easily available to everybody. Remember Instamatics? You probably don't. But trust me, those and countless rangefinder and SLR cameras made their appearance at darn near every wedding I shot, as big a nuisance then as any modern-day Ansel Adams in the pew with a smartphone and a couple of snap-on lenses. And you could drop off the film at any same-day developing kiosk across the country; they were the Starbucks of their day. As for me? I was a diligent printmaker, color as well as black & white; the unwashed masses mere poseurs. How does this differ from our experience with photography today? I submit it does not.

The craftsmanship --  the art -- of image-making is no less demanding today; it may be the mastery of software and not chemistry and paper, but the skills needed to match your vision with an equally compelling finished image (print or otherwise) takes as much time and effort to master. So I'm not one to compare or complain. I had the good fortune to have been in a position to learn both and span the gap between the old and the new, and as much as I may miss the smell of hypo, I wouldn't go back.

So when someone says it's easier today, that all you need to do is learn a few keystrokes, well... again, I call you-know-what. It's only easy if you want it be, but true mastery still takes a lifetime.

We all have a long way to go.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Virtual Duality and a Good Photo ~

In the pre-digital era, there was no such thing as photography without the finished product. This may have been as simple as a box of color slides you slipped into a Kodak carousel, or as sophisticated as an archival black & white print. But it was something, and it always occurred after you made the exposure in the camera. We take a lot more photos today, a lot more, because smartphones got smarter and good digital cameras got cheaper. The unprecedented accessibility of picture taking, however, is just one side of the coin; on the other is the radical notion of picture making.

This is the beautiful dialectic of digital photography, its yin and yang, and exists on levels we couldn't predict back when dinosaurs had Nikons. Part of this, the traditional part, is in the artifact: the after-the-fact creation (or more accurately, the re-creation) of what you saw when you took the picture. The print. It can be anything from a gallery-quality chromogenic piece of art framed and hanging on your wall or a 3 x 5 from Costco. Doesn't matter. Post-digital era be damned, print that sucker out. We think we can be content with the virtual archive, the cloud, the 64Gb storage of an iPhone but I have serious doubts, and I bet, deep inside, you do too. Leafing through my children's (and now grandchildren's, for heaven's sake) baby albums is a deeply moving and bittersweet joy that even Lightroom cannot accord, and this experience is ageless.

The truly non-traditional aspect to all this is the immediate ability to share your photos.  Where the yin of printing is personal, the yang of sharing is universal. Whether it's the personal focus of an email or the wide broadcast of social media, it's an unprecedented avenue of expression. And you need to take advantage of it. Listen, if you can survive the onslaught of all my photographs over the years, I can certainly survive yours. But let me make it even clearer: I want to see them.

You might be laboring under the misapprehension that there is a certain standard of artistry or photoshop cleverness that needs to be reached before you can presume to post an image online, but it's nonsense. The photo is what you're posting, but what you're sharing is the passion that made you take it in the first place.

And who doesn't want to see that?