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.
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.
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.
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 😉
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.
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.
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.
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 😉 😉 😉 (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 🙂 It’s far scarier, as results are never guaranteed, but it’s so much more fun.
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.
Post processing of those “improvised” images can sometimes be … interesting 😉
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 😉
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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