#973. The Beauty of Photographic Improvisation

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Mar 02

When conceptual artists trust so much museum space, when even I put so much emphasis on intention as the main ingredient in great photography, what room does this leave for discovery, personal interpretation and improvisation?

It’s an essential question. First because DS is a self-proclaimed travel (ie, available sight, as opposed to studio) photography blog. And, secondly, because I firmly believe that the most interesting things in life always happen at the boundary between two areas, two forces, two genres … So, exploring the boundary between personal vision and physical reality must be an interesting playground, and a great justification for seeking the ability to react to the decisive moment over perfect technique.

The inconvenient lamp post

None of this should sound pompous, so let me rephrase my thoughts.

A good photograph happens when good technique supports a good idea. Most non-photographic visual arts build upon an idea from scratch, carving a blank slab of stone, adding paint to a canvas, or applying charcoal ink to mulberry paper. Studio work is all about putting in place a scene that best underlies an idea.

But serendipity happens when the photographer is open to circumstance. Humans are messy and brilliant. Nothing goes perfectly according to plan when humans are involved, but things often turn out better than the plan had imagined – at least in some non-quantitative measure – when creative genius meets the unexpected.

In a studio, I’d have placed the lamp post above in a higher situation so as not to overlap the wall. I’d probably have shielded the lens from the sun to avoid that glare. But I was (as usual) running after family and made this in a very short time, and didn’t think it through. Now, though, I wouldn’t want the photograph any different from how it has turned out.

Old stone

A planned version of that photograph would have appeared more perfect, according to the rules of composition, but also more static. And less personal.

I believe that how we deal with the imperfections of real life is what defines our style (and, more generally, who we are). Lad Session’s recent post on Satisficing resonated with me not because it made life simpler to just wing it (his photographs proved how trained his eye is) but because it tells a story of a perfect balance between formal and informal.

Of course, that balance is individual. Yours isn’t mine. Where you stop your PP efforts is different from where I stop mine. How you frame, what gear you choose to bring with you, … all of those decisions can be placed on a scale ranging from lazy to diligent. And their combination allows the multiplicity of styles that make us all individually different from one another.

The dam at Sainte Victoire: too formal?

Of all those sliders, I find the most interesting to be how much we allow ourselves to interpret a scene vs document it faithfully.

You wouldn’t have framed this scene as I did. Or maybe you would. Maybe your focus would have been on the people walking its ridge under the triangular shape of Sainte Victoire (dear to Cezanne) Maybe you would have turned a longer lens than this 35mm eq fl towards the bottom and it’s huge plume of ejected water.

I focused on the composition of the dam and mountain, one seemingly reflecting the other around a central symmetry. On second thought, it feels a bit too formal and obedient to rules of composition. But that simply reveals who I am and what shaped me as a photographer. Blame Adams, Arnheim, Ruskin, Waite and a non-rebellious mind on my part for that πŸ˜‰

White elephant

Our respective choises don’t really matter. What does is that we usually make them instinctively and very quickly. If we let ourselves.

As much as I adore the look from large format cameras, my use of those monsters stopped forever when I realised every single shot would require 1-10 minutes of setup. To me, this killed the instinctual response to the scene and created a set of very static / dull images.

Without being Cartier Bresson, it is the reaction to moments that often appeals the most to me and which, I feel, can most reveal the differences in style, and appreciation of our surroundings, between all of us.

Go figures

I think studio / planned work can reveal our ability to construct a narrative, but it is the split second that reveals us.

One can be mastered through learning technique. The other leads us to understand ourselves.

This isn’t to say one is inherently superior to the other. In fact, my guess is the first ability is far more important to become a successful gallery artist (at least today). But the second may be more important for personal fulfillment.

Pigeon whole, one of my favourite personal photographs in a while.

Why? Because bypassing reflexion and convention probably reveals a far more personal take on life.

New age gurus, in such vogue yesterday, might tell you it lets you take a peek at your soul and elevate your consciousness.

Productivity gurus, in such vogue today, would probably also have something clever to say about making more money, reading more books every week and flaunt other “wonderful” material benefits of letting the intellect take a back seat.

Clearing Kensington storm

I simply find it relaxing to let go and to find myself pointing my camera at something no one else is taking interest in, and which I don’t really undertsand myself, but ends up being a very pleasing image. To me at least πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ (isn’t that the most important?)

And, again, isn’t it surprising to witness how much love we give to improvisation in music, theatre (and possibly other art forms) but how little we invite/tolerate it in our photography?

Most photo fora and social websites rank photographs based on their adherence to a set of predefined rules. Many tutorials focus on teaching a set of predefined rules. I say let’s give improvisation a chance πŸ™‚ It’s far scarier, as results are never guaranteed, but it’s so much more fun.

Pictures at an exhibition

Split second photographs end up being rubbish or very interesting. Rarely in between. This renders culling easy and makes for an interesting set of keepers.

I sometimes look back at those photos that have made the cut wondering whether it is really me who made them. They are sometimes so unlike what I would consciously and deliberately make that it shows how stongly my adherence to convention and rules affect my “usual” production.

In that sense, improvisation is quite liberating.

Night blues

Post processing of those “improvised” images can sometimes be … interesting πŸ˜‰

Sometimes, the intention comes back to me as suddenly as during the shoot. Sometimes, I scratch my head wondering what it was that triggered me, knowing the photograph has potential (unlike some absolute duds) but unable to find it easily (as above). But more and more, I recognise those shots as being my own, not what others have taught me to make.

And I hope that by forcing myself to post process those intelligently, I can bring myself to bridge the gap between intuition and training more and more efficiently in future shoots. At any rate, it’s a lot of fun, that archeology in my own library πŸ˜‰

What is the sound of Hell breaking loose?

So, why not try this diabolical plan with me ?

Let ourselves to act on instinct (which is different from random) / forget the judgement of others / allow ourselves to be the best (and strictest) judge of quality / tolerate the numerous rubbish shots / learn to recognize what pleases us without trying to understand why / savour the building of a truly personal portfolio, which may not be artistic in the strictest sense but will be a in interesting reflection of our sensibilities nonetheless.

“Know the technique or be in touch with thyself”, maybe that is the question. What do you think?


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  • philberphoto says:

    Whew!! There is as much to admire as there is to think about! This is the sort of post that makes me think that Pascal has already forgotten more about photography than I ever knew… And two pics that I would be more than happy to hang my photographic carreer on… the astro pics, and the McLaren. Kudos, kudos, kudos….

  • Patrick says:

    Indeed, plenty of food for thoughts and inspirations.

    Your saying, “the reaction to moments that often appeals the most of me” really sums up my mission when I’m holding a camera in my hands.

    Thank you, Pascal !

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    By the time I was half way through, I wondered if there was anything I COULD say.

    I’ve never been interested in what other people think of my photos. In fact, I never took too much notice of ANYTHING I was “told” to do. I wanted to be “me”, not someone else – so the whole idea was anathema. Hardly surprising that my mother used to wonder what she’d given birth to!

    So – the text of your post was music to my ears. And each image was an interesting excursion to take, in the midst of exploring what you said next.

    But for me it was worse. Abiding by a “rule” meant “do as your told”. So in my mind they were very quickly downgraded from “rules” to “helpers”. Leaving room to do something else, perhaps something quite different, if a particular “rule” didn’t suit.

    And thank you thank you thank you thank you – for telling one and all “this is what I do – but you should do YOUR own thing, because there’s no reason for you to do the same things I do!”

    Philippe, you clearly know more than I do. I couldn’t tell a McLaren from a Smart car. But that image is fascinating. I can’t figure for the life of me how you managed to take it, Pascal.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Jean Pierre.

      The car was lit up by a luminous ceiling that looked like Spiderman’s lair. The doors were open, two guys on board (and a lady filming on the side, probably a new happy custimer receiving his kit), one at the back, so it was basically a case of being there at the right moment πŸ™‚

      You should turn to Aleister Crowley πŸ˜‰ His motto for Thelema was: “Do what tou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Of course, many said he was the most evil man alive πŸ˜‰ But others thought he was a genious. Whatever the case, his acknowledgement of a true calling and true will (a sense of purpose) is very freeing in a world dominated by human herding.

      • jean pierre guaron says:

        ROTFLMHAO – well I can’t say that I’ve ever had any ambition to be the most evil person on Earth. I think I can safely leave that to others!

        But I have to agree with the idea of “being there at the right moment”.

        I know, I know – we’re supposed to plan for months, get up at 4AM and drive to the location, set up, and wait, till it’s “the right moment”.

        But you simply CAN’T plan for everything.

        So while planning ALSO produces some of the finest photographs you will ever take (or see), so, too, does “being there at the right moment”!

        • pascaljappy says:

          Well, not all photographers plan. I remember a Micheal Reichmann interview in which he explained he didn’t like to prepare a trip to a new city too much because it spoiled his spontaneous reaction to it. So we’re in good company πŸ™‚

      • jean pierre guaron says:

        PS – remember what I said to you recently about learning PROPERLY, how to use the cameras that we do have? – instead of lusting after other gear?

        I have now decided to surrender, and take the initiative myself, of entering my name in the “shame file”.

        While I fool around with my Canon PowerShot and detest the manual for it, which is practically illegible and most of it is incomprehensible, I normally shoot with one of my Nikons. Either the D500 or the D850.

        And they’re not just “good”. They’re “great”.

        For the benefit of other readers, here’s the thing. I have now decided to sit with these two cameras and learn PROPERLY how to swing from the tree tops with them.

        So I have bought two and a half manuals for each of them. (The “half” is actually a “pocket guide, that easily goes into the camera bag). And of course there are the manuals that came with the cameras.

        I am now thoroughly humiliated. I am drowning an enormous ocean of my own ignorance. Never before in my entire life has it ever been more true to say that the more I learn, the more I learn that I have yet to learn.

        Oh well – I suppose it’s like painting a ceiling. Every square metre done, is one square metre less to do. At least, I am hoping that’s how it’s going to work out. πŸ™‚

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    What a well-written reminder that the only way to stay creative is to improvise! Toss the β€œrules” out and play to your heart’s content! What have you got to lose? A few pixels? A little time? Nope – any time spent photographing is time well spent. Excellent illustrative images too.

  • Pascal, wow what an article. Your first image just blew me away I’m in Orr. I will need to read the article 2 or 3 times to allow all your words of wisdom to sink in, what a gem.

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Great post, Pascal, covering so much ground pertaining to how and why we do photography.

    And great images, too. I particularly love Night Blues. I also like the photo of Sainte Victoire and the dam. To me it’s doesn’t look formal at all, but rather as an instinctive, spontaneous response to the sight of two triangular forms mirroring each other.

    As a comment on your opening statement, I feel that intention and interpretation/improvisation are not mutually exclusive. I view intention as what we aim to achieve through our practice of photography, a driving force, and improvisation as the way we respond to our surroundings, to our mood of the moment, spontaneity – photographic jazz, Jacques Loussie’s take on J.S. Bach comes to mind πŸ™‚

    Intention and improvisation can feed and balance each other to make a body of work that provides a glimpse of who we are, how we relate to the world around us. Improvisation can also exist without intention, free-wheeling, free-thinking, random thoughts imprinted on pixels. And again, in the end it’s the images that count.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Jean Claude, thank you for the kind words.

      You are absolutely correct and that’s how I should have put it: Improvisation and intention are not mutually exclusive. To me, our intention can direct our instinctual reaction to a scene. And our evaluation of our intuitive work can help us better understand and refine our intention. To me, that is the most interesting part.

      All the best.

  • Jaap Veldman says:

    Hi Pascal, that was a very well thought out piece indeed.

    Your statement
    β€˜A good photograph happens when good technique supports a good idea’
    however felt a bit too limiting to me. This can be because maybe I already presumed you to have the following -limiting- interpretation:

    Good technique = Technically good

    Considering earlier posts I do not -at second thought- expect that that’s your idea of Good though.
    But let me share a few thoughts.

    For me a good photograph can be good because the technique is appropriate for the idea. Which doesn’t necessarily have to be technically good.

    Recently you posted blurred images. For me, as a viewer, they leave room for the imagination and I appreciate that.
    Also, B&W photography I still love. It usually leaves more room for my imagination.
    And even photographs executed with bad technique can -to me- be interesting because they leave room for the imagination, the bad technique can even add to the atmosphere.

    The β€˜leaving room for the imagination’ – idea is not the only way though in which photographs can be appreciated, I think.

    But it leaves room for technically bad execution…so, what’s Good and what’s Bad?

    Cheers and keep up the Good work!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Jaap, thank you for the kind words πŸ™‚ You’re right about the technique part! What I should have said is that good technique and a good idea always lead to a good photograph. That would have been more clear. But, yes, you can make a good photograph without the strictest technique. It’s always best when the technique supports the idea and that can mean straying from what we conventionally consider to be “good” technique, as you describe with the intentional blurs.

      All the best!

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Thanks Pascal,
    And your thoughts resonate with mine , πŸ™‚ !

    > “Our respective choises don’t really matter. What does is that we usually make them instinctively and very quickly. If we let ourselves.”

    To me this – and your essay as a whole – is very reminiscent to the “Book of Tao”!

    > “.. , but it is the split second that reveals us.”
    πŸ™‚ , !

    > “One can be mastered through learning technique. The other leads us to understand ourselves.”

    Yes, and the first, if practiced well, gives raw material to digest by our unconscious into sources for the second – and that influences how we do the first.

    ( And for me, planned photos are always inferior to my best keepers from the second way…)
    – – * – –

    > “.. running after family ..”

    In my teens, when a family walk was suggested, if my father and I both took our cameras (Superikontas), my mother said she’d rather stay home – she didn’t like stopping to wait for us all the time – so we left them at home…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, Kristian πŸ™‚ Any comparison of my writing to The Book of Tao is going to make my head swell like a balloon!

      My wife and family are very tolerant of my photography. They just don’t wait and it’s up to me to run back and find them in the crowd πŸ˜€

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Oh, Pascal,
        > “.. comparison of my writing ..”
        I wasn’t… , but I realize I was unclear.
        I’m sorry!
        I recognized ways of doing in common with what I understand of that – and you did express that very clearly.
        (.. unlike the Book of Tao, where you have to reread till you decode its (somewhat) paradoxical way of expression – perhaps it’s because it’s poetry, or they wanted the reader to have to find a guru…)

  • For me feeling precedes seeing and I respond instead of impose. This is fundamental to me and has been for years. I feel a photographic opportunity and then try to translate that into a photograph. A photographic opportunity is almost a pre-conceptual experience.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Pre-conceptual. Interesting. If that means conscious thought doesn’t have time to influence the photograph, it’s really what I’m going for here. That can only happen very fast as it is very difficult to keep intellectual thought at bay for very long (at least, it is for me). All the best.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Knowing that you love exploring in all directions, I am not surprised to see you coming to this, Pascal πŸ™‚
    This is the state of mind I settled for most of the time… even knowing it is “also” a consequence of all my limitations πŸ™‚
    Once it happens, once the instinct takes over, the feeling is…. addictive πŸ˜€
    Hence, count me in πŸ™‚
    The fist two pics of the all and the lamp struck me as very effective ways of bringing attention to all this; and the “NIght blues” one resonates a lot, it is exactly the kind of pics where, once back home, I think “what really called me then?”…
    Kind of post that makes me love this blog about philosophy πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, very addictive. The feeling of being grounded and in touch with something deeper is very satisfying. I suppose that’s simply called “flow”, in polite circles πŸ˜€ Thanks.

  • Alan says:

    Lovely, Pascal, as always. I’m partial to the dam… it just appeals.
    I agree with you that improvisation is the thing and that consciously adhering to rules is death to creativity. (If that’s indeed what you meant!). I was a failure as a professional photographer largely because I found it impossible to adhere to someone else’s vision. That was not a good trait in that case!
    May I quote from Edward Weston on his completion of Pepper No. 30 which had succeeded peppers #1-29. He wrote: “First I printed my favorite, the one made last Saturday, August 2, just as the light was failing — quickly made, but with a week’s previous effort back of my immediate, unhesitating decision. A week? — yes, on this certain pepper — but with twenty years of effort, starting with a youth on a farm in Michigan, armed with a No. 2 Bull’s Eye Kodak, 3 1/2 x 2 1/2, have gone into the making of this pepper, which I consider to be the peak of achievement.”

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