When I was 12, through gifts and contributions, I was able to acquire my first serious camera, a Mamiya ZE with a 50mm lens and a few rolls of film. Magazines had nurtured in me an unhealthy lust for Nikons and Olympi far out of my financial grasp, but a very intelligent and empathic salesman convinced me I would not notice the difference with the Mamiya. I’m eternally grateful.
I could have waited for my budget to extend to the brighter and shinier, and lost interest. I could have obsessed about shutter speeds and battery grip strap-ons. Instead, I made images. I’m eternally grateful.
On my first roll, 36 photographs because 24 seemed too restricted for my talent, I photographed the plot of land my parents had just bought and were starting to build our first house on. The plot, a strip taken from an apricot orchard in a small village, was full of uprooted trees, foundation trenches and heaps of the turf dug out from them.
My parents had placed a shuttering plank horizontally in a V-shaped hollow in between two of these heaps, as a makeshift bench. And, at the end of what must have been a long day of cleaning the plot and shoveling, they sat down, my dad popped open a beer and placed his arm around my mum’s shoulder. I sneaked up behind and clicked. Signing what I still consider, 40 years on, one of my best ever photographs.
Sadly, I can’t show you. And you wouldn’t be impressed. Just two people centered in the frame in between two out of focus and dark masses, with a bottle of Fosters to their left. And very grainy.
Because my understanding of photography was quite limited at the time and well … I’d used a different ISO (ASA, really) setting for each photograph on the film … ASA 200 for which I’d used everything available on the camera, from 25 to 3200 … yup 😉
Back at the shop, I was lucky to explain this before the roll was processed and the same saviour sales guy, instead of laughing me out of the room, asked me which setting I’d used the most and decided to have the film processed for that. From memory, 800.
That photo must have been 400, because it came out quite dark. But the picture was great. I had no clue. I didn’t try. In a second, I focused and placed my parents smack in the middle. It’s sheer luck that the out of focus mounds created such a nest of a composition for them and that the transparent backlit bottle added that element of freedom to the pic. Beginner’s luck.
But I don’t need to show you. We’ve all done them, those simple photographs that have nothing going for them, but which people can look at for hours. Friends on a beach. Happy moments. Quiet introspection. Giggles with the kids. Usually not that good (like all the photos above, which usually never get published) but highly meaningful, at least to us.
Then, just like a kid’s natural artistry starts to get pried out by normative education, we start to try too hard. We learn about composition. We obsess over meaningless technological detail.
And by the time we’ve become technically competent photographers, we’ve learned how to create stunning photographs that are dead inside. The sort of spectacular and lifeless drivel you see raking up likes on social media or hanging in safe corporate settings.
In our rush to become proficient, we often forget about meaning.
To me, meaning should be 80% of a photograph. It doesn’t have to be the same for you, and meaningful isn’t mutually exclusive with pretty or well executed. But it should start with meaning.
Because meaning is the hardest part, so we need as much training as we can to bring it back into our craft, hidden as it is by layers of conformity, marketing influence and social pressure. And because meaning is what gives a photograph it’s greatest impact.
A stunning composition of unicorns with perfect backlit dew photographed through Rodenstock’s finest and with a 150Mpx trichromatic Phase back but to which no one relates, because it’s pretty and that’s about it, well that’s a fail. The exact opposite of a grainy portrait of my mum and dad wondering whether they’d make it physically and financially, sitting on a shuttering plank.
Rembrandt is remembered by the public for his chiaroscuro, Turner for his depiction of light through incredible atmospheric effects. The reality is that those techniques served a need to express a deeper meaning and Rembrandt is also remembered for his moving series of self-portraits. Turner, my guess is, was deeply influenced by nature and its absolute power over our lives (as evidenced by the storm bringing Hannibal to a halt, the mighty Temeraire towed to a humiliating death by a steam boat, and so on).
The minute we bring strong meaning into our photographs, they become far more powerful and lasting. Great artists are those who can produce work that speaks very deeply to a lot of people. In the old days, illustrating a passage of the Bible was one way of finding such deep meaning. Nature is also a recurring theme. As are life and death, love, illness, happiness, trauma. Any primal feeling can be used for illustration in a way that will move ourselves and others deeply. But it’s hard to let all this surface as we have spent our life learning how to bury it deep down and how to focus on all the wrong things in photography.
So, here’s my challenge to you. Over the next couple of days, I dare you to produce a photograph that’s incredibly moving or meaningful. To you alone, or to a deeper audience.
If you want, deliberately misfocus or mess with exposure or composition. Use your phone or your worst lens. Make it so technically bad or bland you’d never want to show it to anyone for fear of ridicule, but so emotionally charged that you’ll never want to delete it from your archives.
You don’t have to, you can make it technically exquisite. But, upon seeing the photo for the first time, if someone thinks “what, what light” or “oh, that’s great PP” or “gee, that guy knows how to compose a shot” and not “oh man, this makes me want to cry”, then it’s a complete fail.
In looking for photographs to illustrate this myself, I soon realised that finding bland images was easy, but finding moving ones was a lot harder. So I’m including myself in this challenge. I desperately need the training and reformating.
Take your time, do your worst/best and send your candidates to me (pascal dot jappy at gmail dot com). Add some text if you wish to. In 2 weeks, I’ll published whatever has arrived 🙂 I’m hoping for an emotional post and betting on a transformative one! Clock’s ticking, get to it 😉 And photograph like you mean it.
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