Allow me to think out loud.
A number of you (there may be more lurking than I think) have been reading with interest my road to photographic discovery. As a refresher, I’ve been taking pictures for years. Years and years. But, I upgraded to a DSLR this last summer, took a manual exposure class and am on the road. To where? I don’t know. I don’t have grand plans of becoming a professional photographer, though if the opportunity was arise I would consider it.
But, can I tell you a secret? I love this journey. Photography challenges me, frustrates me, rewards me. I wish I had more time to sink into it. To just dive in and wallow for weeks. I also love the knowledge that it’s a journey. Some days I want to be better now, particularly when something isn’t working out how I would like. But, most days I’m happy to be settled in for the long haul. I can say with confidence that this will be a hobby that I will pursue for the rest of my life.
I’m currently reading…wait for it…a 424 page book about my camera (Canon EOS 60D). I bought the tome when I purchased the camera, but hadn’t really done more with it than search for specific things I needed to know. I am happy to report that I had not yet resorted to using it as a door-stop. However, last weekend I picked up The Visual Toolbox: 60 lessons for stronger photographs by David Duchemin (who is quickly becoming a favorite) and Lesson 3 told me to read my manual. Sigh. Though I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s not as dry as I thought it would be. In fact, it’s pretty informative. I’m only on page 151, though, so there is a distinct possibility that my head will blow up before I reach page 424.
Since I’ve been reading quite a bit about photography and cameras I’ve also, naturally, been thinking quite a bit. And I’ve found myself wrestling with a few things, which is why I’m here. To share my thoughts and (hopefully) to gather the thoughts of those of a photographic bent who happen to read this.
David Duchemin’s introduction to The Visual Toolbox contains such gems as these:
“A friend asked me recently if I felt photographic educators were these days too strongly biased toward the technical, that they did not pay enough attention to the aesthetic. I do.”
“You will notice here an absence of rules, because there are none. We will not be exploring the Rule of Thirds, because there is no such rule, and I want to encourage a healthy anarchy among my students. I want to introduce you to a handful of photographers who changed this art form and taught their generation, and later us, to see in new ways. I want to show you principles and invite you to play with them, turn them on their heads and try new things until you prove me wrong..There is no right way–only ways that will give you the tools you need to create new and beautiful, honest things with your camera.”
“Some of us can do astonishing things with 12 strobes or can HDR the crap out of 16 frames taken on a $40,000 Hasselblad but still can’t make a photograph anyone truly gives a damn about. The internet is full of those kinds of images: technically perfect, frequently lauded with “Nice capture, man,” and utterly forgettable. I think I’d weep if the best you could say about my photographs is that they’re tack sharp or perfectly exposed.”
“We’re all looking for the perfect little box with a hole in it, and they’re sexy little things, I’ll give you that…But Leica’s red dot isn’t going to make my photographs in better if they’re not already good. Thinking differently will do that. Wrestling with new ideas and compositions will do that. Replacing the gear catalogs and popular magazines that are packed with ads–voices telling you, ‘You can shoot like a pro’ with the newest camera–with books of actual photographs that will help you do that. Putting down your fancy D4 and picking up a completely manual for a while might do that, too. And, yes, a small mirrorless camera might do that for you. Or it won’t. If you aren’t making beautiful, honest photographs with the camera you have now, you won’t do it for the one you’re lusting for. I promise.”
Does that resonate with anyone besides me? It seems that technical savvy will only get me so far. But, I’m new to the technical. So, how far deep do I need to go into the technical…or, maybe the better question is: how do I balance the development of the technical with development of my photographic heart? And how does one reconcile all of that with societal photographic expectations?
Obviously, there’s merit to learning the technical. It seems a necessity…and I’m interested and open to it…and pursuing it. I mean, how are photographic awards awarded? Judges must be looking for…something. Are there some technical elements that are “non-negotiables”? Or is it entirely a crap-shoot?
Here’s one thing I’ve already picked up on: there seem to be certain expectations about sharpness and composition and white balance. But, in the same breath there’s talk about how there’s a lot of subjective involved. Prefer your photos warmer? Or cooler? Subjective. Tack sharp or not so tack sharp? What’s your personal preference?
So, how does one seek feedback and constructive criticism if so much of it is subjective? How does one trust the feedback they receive when one person may say, “Too cool,” and the next person may say, “Too warm”? How do I use conflicting opinions to develop (and improve) my art without being led astray by well-intentioned but misguided opinions?
There’s a part of me that wants to be a photographic island unto myself. To be honest, that’s part of the appeal of photography: it’s a singular pursuit. It’s me and my camera outside in the sun or the fog or the drizzle exploring the world. Sometimes with the husband moseying behind me, other times not. But, there’s a part of me that recognizes I will learn much more if I engage…somewhere…somehow. If I seek criticism and feedback. But, who’s feedback should I trust?
How many questions have I asked, thus far? Let’s count. 15. That’s quite a few.
I should probably wrap this up. It’s not a topic I’m agonizing over. I think my only true concern is getting feedback on photos that leads me completely astray. It’s just things I’ve been thinking about, you know? So, I thought I would share because I can’t be the only one who has been here.
How can you help? Well, consider these final questions:
What kind of criticism have you found helpful? What kind has served as little more than white noise? Have you found that you’ve learned most on your own or as part of a group (a camera club or the like)? How have you, personally, reconciled the apparent fact that photography is such a subjective beast that there is no photo that everyone will agree is fantabulous (though a few people will agree as there are lots of elite photography awards handed out on an annual basis)? What about the struggle between the technical and the artistic? How do you avoid getting so caught up in the technical that you forget the artistic? Or visa versa? Because, without a doubt, you can go too far the other way, too.
24. 24 questions posed from me to you. With love. And a big box of chocolates. And a balloon. I’m a sucker for a mylar balloon. And a final quote from David:
“If I were to begin a school of photography right now, it would send the geeks screaming for the hills. Or at least avoiding my school in droves. Every student would spend one year with one camera–a fully manual 35mm camera…It would have one prime lens and a light meter. Students would be restricted to black and white film. And they’d be restricted from using anything digital except an iPhone. There’d be no magazines and no how-to books. Students would spend a year making photographs, talking about them, studying the work of photographers–past and present–who had something to say, those who made their mark in some way. They’d study stories, and painting, and some art history beyond merely the annals of photographic history. For some people it would be a long, long year.”
Sign me up, David.