Internal conflict between photographic aspirations and reality can eat you up, man.
Know thyself, right?
A few posts ago, I mentioned growing dissatisfaction with my “grabber” approach to photography. For those not familiar with this website, the grabber is one of the 4 photographer personalities proposed by co-author Philippe which describes people like me who walk about with no predetermined ideas in mind and pounce on visual opportunities. This is the opposite of studio work, for example. There’s nothing sinister about being a grabber 😉 It’s merely an opportunistic mindset.
There is however, a perceived lack of meaning in my resulting photographs. They do not appear to add up to something which others, with more deliberate projects and workflows, might call a body of work.
And that’s been getting to me. Not for my legacy (I’ve misplaced most of my raw files, all of my negatives, and whatever is left when I kick the bucket will end up in a dump 😉 ) But for the joy of the everyday process. Now, you have every right not to care, but I’m not the only one in this situation, and the thought process below can be applied to anyone’s path, so I’m describing it in the hope it can be useful to others 🙂
Since (dis)satisfaction is an internal measure of the contrast between the reality of one’s work and one’s expectations, it’s probably pertinent to examine both the reality and the expectations separately.
Everyone’s expectations are different. Mine are maybe too high 😉 as much of my reading time is devoted to highly curated books describing the work of the best togs out there. It feels like an ego-saving idea to keep this in mind. But among this lofty group of published masters, not all members call to me as vividly. The siren songs that most drag me towards the financially dangerous waters of gallery walls tend to come from photographers able to blend a strong visual signature with a meaningful subject.
My reality is a certain ability to create aesthetically pleasing images, though not necessarily infused with as much depth as “In Search of Lost Time” or “Ulysses”. I blame the British and the Americans.
Well, at least, the British and American photographers that formed the backbone of my self-inflicted photographic home-schooling. Ansel Adams and his Holly Trinity of books (you ain’t no petrolhead if you haven’t owned an Alfa Romeo, and you ain’t no tog if you haven’t read those). Charlie Waite and Joe Cornish, on the other side of the pond. All very deliberate in their framing and exposure, and composition. All inspiring writers/teachers.
It’s entirely possible that the younger version of myself who interpreted, and tried to apply, the writings of those towering masters only understood and retained the formal aspects of their work, focusing on the how and setting aside the why. It’s entirely possible this may have stuck a formal broom too far up my wotsit for the good of my older self’s creative juices. Bloody teenagers.
Today, I’m drawn to travel:
I’m drawn to light
I’m drawn to shape
I’m drawn to composition
I’m drawn to abstraction
And this causes me to photograph almost anything that fits into one of those categories, with no common thread and a grabbing mindset that seems to go against the idea of building a meaningful body of work.
So, to remedy this anglo-saxon debacle, it’s time to bring in some solid French reinforcement. The French are known to be down-to-Earth go getters, right? Cue Roland Barthes.
Now, my man Roland proposed, among many other interesting concepts, a duality that may serve to illuminate my predicament. Could Studium and Punctum unbroom my rectum? (sorry)
Studium, as I understand it, represents the formal qualities in a photograph that can be studied intellectually to reveal the author’s intentions. With long-format, heavily-processed, monochrome, composed, semi-abstract, pics all over the page, you could say I do studium.
Punctum, on the other hand, is that single element that shoots right to your heart and emotion, from the photo, like an arrow.
To me, one is top (viewer) down (image) and intellectual, while the other is bottom up and emotional. And it’s quite possible that my images show a deficit of punctum. Am I dead inside? 😉
Not really, nor do I think punctum refers to base lolcattery.
But, it probaly points to that human element which caused the photographer to click and the viewer to feel instant emotion, even before a formal analysis of the image could take place in their brain.
Now, living in a backward country where photographing someone’s face could land me in more trouble than breaking into their home to steal their jewelry, doesn’t make it easy to rely on portraiture for that human connection. But I’ll try elsewhere, or will draw smiley faces on every recogniseable person in my future frames. More importantly, I’ll definitely work on finding more relatable sources of emotional connection.
To help with this un-clinching, I’m channeling the spirit of two highly proficient grabbers: William Eggleston and Harry Gruyaert. Watching them work is fascinating. As is the impact of their images.
Eggleston doesn’t care what happens in a frame. He looks, walks, looks intently. And whenever something appeals to his eye-brain, he lifts his camera barely long enough to peek through the viewfinder and click. It’s all over in way less than a second. Framing is raw and purely instinctual. There’s no fancy worrying about the corners or cutting stuff in half. In fact, I’d wager most of his images we’ve come to love for their brilliant cutting-in-half of people-and-objects are largely due to fast shooting and heavily intentional placement of the photographer relative to the main subject. It’s brilliant and so freeing. It’s not laziness in any conceivable way. Eggleston is so strict about never making more than one image of a given subject. No retakes, not second thoughts. Chimping? You’re kidding, right? Think before you shoot, internalise, then snap in the fastest possible way without ever letting left brain formalism get in the way of the creation process. And, needless to say, all on film. What a role model!
Gruyaert, on the other hand, walks, modern (midrange) DSLR and zoom in hand, and shoots shoots shoots, varying angles, letting the scene flow and unfold, until perfection has been attained. Where Eggleston has been photographing the same city for half a century, Gruyaert has a constant itch for new places, new colours, new cultures. Despite the difference in method, he shares with Eggleston a healthy disdain for over-thinking, seeking a result that only pleases him, in an obvious state of intense concentration and grabbing flow.
Along with Leiter and Meyerowitz, it’s hard to imagine more elated sources of inspiration to let intuition come to the fore. And it’s beautiful to see grabbers reach the very pinnacle of photographic mastery, through freedom of vision and visceral response rather than formal education. The meaning we see in their images doesn’t stem from some mysterious ingredient or academic secret, but from the fact that so much of their personality shines through in what and how they photograph (punctum and studium). That is what gives their pictures both identity and consistency.
To scratch my celluloid itch, I’m honing my (fantasy) film emulation skills (see the four images above, all shot around Alba, in Northern Italy, about a month ago).
And, now that I understand that my problem is not being a grabber, but not giving my grabbing instincts more control over my images, I’m walking about with my phone trying to look and quickly capture whatever feels, rather than looks interesting. Just to loosen up and get more in tune with my inner voice, to let my personal values make it to my photographs. Showing you have a soul. This is how a body of work gets created. My guess is this will take a lot longer than learning to emulate films 😉
Yes, as with any transformation process, this will take time. But I’ll get there.
And when I do, I’ll be dissatisfied with something else 😆
Still, a love for fine art will always be in my blood, and this will always be the type of image I’m after. Something that uses formal qualities to highlight human know-how or events. But, hopefully, with a little more punctum and emotion involved than in this image.
At the end of the day, what really makes me happy is human stories, crafts, and local culture. And the photographs that please me the most are those that reconcile that natural inclination with my photographic preferences, as in the set of photographs below of my father in law’s shed, veggie patch, and home-built canal boat. Telling a human story in a beautiful way, that’s what it’s about.
I don’t know how or when progress will materialize, but the journey is the fun part. Hopefully, this will also provide useful insight on future gear … And I’m pretty sure none of this can happen without intensive printing, in order to see packs of photographs side by side.
So there it is, my self-indulgent nostrum. I hope it inspires you to distill your own, if you need to.
Sidenote: If you’ve not yet heard about The Darkroom Rumour, I cannot recommend it enough. A month’s subscription is 4€ and gives you unlimited access to a number of documentaries about fantastic photographers. If you too are seeking paths, this is one of the best and cheapest investments in yourself you can make. Cheers
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Pascal, a Grabber you are an excellent one at that. Some of the shots I recognise, the Tuscan shot I drool over. The church in Sienna I think, the Gare de Lyon are brilliant. Take care. Dallas
Thank you Dallas, always nice to read 😉
Shouldn’t that read “you ain’t no petrolhead if you haven’t owned an Alfa Romeo, you ain’t no tog if you haven’t owned a Leica ” 🙂
Talking of Eggleston who shoots democratically as he puts it – he could easily have been the author or the inspiration for the anti manual of street photography – link provided it makes for interesting reading.
Another quote by famous fine art photographer David Yarrow comes to mind too – “Plurality is the bane of photographers” – which is it to be Eggleston or Yarrow ?
eh … you can buy a Leica, you can’t buy knowledge. To me, Adam’s little books are far more important than any camera. Even Rudolf the red dot camera 😉
Thanks for the link. I’m not sure I can access it all, but the first part seems to be opening OK.
I’m personally more into Eggleston than Yarrow. But I wouldn’t mind being on a Yarrow shoot with those cheetas and models 😉
Well before I start in on you, Pascal, I’ll take a swipe at one suggestion.
Owning a Leica is not obligatory. I have a brother who’s owned one for the past 60 odd years, and I’ve yet to see anything he’s ever taken that would impress anyone else but him. I think it’s just a status symbol that he treasures, like having a Rolex watch.
Back to the main story. I think you are over-analysing. Your photography is rather eclectic. That’s a personal choice. It would make things difficult for you, if you tried to catalogue everything. Creating albums, ditto. But I think this is true for most, if not all, photographers.
Life is a voyage of exploration and discovery, for creative or thinking people. And you’d never be satisfied unless you chased it all down. The way you’ve changed cameras over the years is an indicator of this. Your quest for answers in the writings of other togs. The cry for answers implicit in this article.
And where does it lead?
Why does it matter?
The greatest joy of being an “amateur” photographer is the right to do whatever we want to do. Nobody is looking over our shoulder. Nobody can tell us what we should or shouldn’t do. We have absolute freedom. Freedom to choose all the tools and accessories, then freedom to use them all for whatever turns us on. The only budget constraint for most of us is providing for our families. The only cultural constraint is whether we share our photos and, if so, with whom and for what purpose.
In a similar vein, I sent you a note earlier about a young ‘tog who’s grown up in the digi era, discovered film, and decided to flip, and junk digi for film. In passing it on, I flagged the fact I’ve done the opposite. Neither of us is wrong – we’re both “exploring”! And you are, too, from everything I’ve ever seen on these pages.
For some, learning is more formal – more structured. For others, it’s “hands on” – trial and error. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Nobody, as far as I’m concerned Because we’re having fun – enjoying it all. No matter what we do, it IS “creative”. Yours too! You’ve given me countless hours of pleasure, gazing at images you’ve posted on DS, and reading your commentaries.
Very true, Pete. As amateurs, we are entitled to do what ever the heck we want 😉 But what I want, is to make better photographs. And watching the work of others that I admire, and how they work has taught me a lot that could be useful. I’ll report on it if it works 🙂
Thanks for the kind words 🙂
I hope Pascal won’t mind me jumping into your dialogue at this point. You have written wise words, about photography and about life. My own photography, such as it is, would fit Pascal’s label of “grabbing”–grabbing what lies to hand in nature, mostly. But even though it sounds trite or banal, I would insist that I thereby also and essentially seek beauty. Yes natural beauty, and beauty that may not be in the eye of every beholder–but it is in my eye. This is a glorious world we have been given, and it is a daily delight to ramble around. I’m not looking to produce a “body of work” that will outlive me; I’m not an exhibitionist. I would like to delight a few others while I’m around, chiefly myself, but I have no desire to be an “influencer” (horrid word). Joy in beauty is profound, seldom found, yet lurking all around. (Heavens, I inadvertently blundered into poetry!)
I truly admire Pascal’s restless creative energy, always moving on (whether or not forward only he can decide), bequeathing all of us countless images and ideas. I think his monochromes are worth looking at again and again, whether or not they graduate to gallery walls. Thank you Pascal! Leica smeica, Hassy passy, film smilm. May your restless spirit find joy in the journey.
Lad, always feel free to jump in. Your remarks are always to the point and interesting. What I see in your photography, and not in mine, is the ability to create projects. To me, that’s an added bonus, on top of the beauty of the individual images, and not an insignificant one.
Thank you for the kind words. The journey is indeed the whole point 🙂
Projects: I think you have the ability to create projects Pascal, just not the time. I’m retired, and time is mostly what I have, though it seems to be eroded by tasks of daily living and busy-ness in a retirement community. You, however, are a very busy professional with an active itinerary; how you find the time to take any photos at all is an amazement–and then to find time to manage DS and post images and write insightful essays! I share Pete’s admiration.
My projects are of two types: one is retrospective, as illustrated by the Forest Floor in the Fall, where I was stimulated by Kristian’s post #1242 and just retrieved some recent images not taken with any project in mind. Another is prospective, as illustrated by the one on local churches currently under development, where I have sought images to illustrate an idea.
You might think of these types as “found” and “planned” projects. You may not have time for the latter, but surely in reviewing your many images (IF you have spare time to do so!) you might well see themes emerging that are the germs of a project.
Thank you, Lad. That is indeed what I am currently doing. Printing seems indispensible at this stage, to see, and arange, photographs next to one another, rather than sequentially on a hard drive. I’ll get there 😉 And I do look forward to that church project!!
I admire his work, too, Lad. He’s way better informed than I am – I’ve never even seen most of the books he’s referring to, let alone read them as he has – his technical knowledge is way deeper than mine – and he’s explored (and still exploring) on a wider range than me
At the moment, I am struggling to get a decent shot of the door on the front of a house around the corner. It’s not moving anywhere – but it’s a matter of having the right camera with me, and being there at the right time. I have a test shot (taken with my cellphone – TOO blurry! – utterly useless!) that shows what I want – but I’m still chasing rainbows!
Meanwhile Pascal is filling the page of DS. Game over, I think!
I see absolutely nothing wrong and many things right with being a “grabber.” Just looking at these images you’ve shown, most are wonderful. I especially like the image under “I’m drawn to composition” (the two lounge chairs on a deck with a what appears to be a lemon bush) – wonderful lighting. I’m also drawn to the image of the cat on the deck, looking through the glass at the photographer. Wonderful placement of the cat in the corner of the frame. I’ve been a two-decade long follower of an American photo publisher who has emphasized “project-based” photography over all other approaches. It’s playing like a broken record to and I’m tired of being pushed in directions that seem unnatural to me. With photography as one’s avocation, I see everything right with being satisfied that my last walk-about with a camera produced even a single image that pleases me. Best to you, Pascal.
Thank you so much Frank. I quite like the deck chair photograph, as well as the 4 Italian ones.
I’m not unhappy with my photos, but would like to move beyond the surface of things. Maybe I’m just kidding myself, but it’s worth a shot 🙂
Best to you too, thank you again!
I love your set of “I’m drawn to”…
Maybe it’s very personal, but to me “light” is *timeless emotional*, “abstract” is *dreamy*, some other ones satisfy an *intellectual* thirst; this leaves “composition”, which has always been a sort of mystery: yours always put me in a “once upon a time” mood 🙂
Funny how such an image – of course sort of related to real memories – create instant flashbacks…
Gorgeous set of images, as often… and as often, both inspiring… and intimidating 🙂
Keep going on, friend, this site – and its members! – is a pure joy.
Thank you very much, Pascal
Interesting choice of grabbers, Eggleston and Gruyaert, given your fondness for high contrast b&w.
Colour can be central to capturing images with a touch of x-factor, can steer the subconscious towards a mood or feeling before you’ve even figured what’s in the image. One of my favourite DS posts was when you cursed the winter’s darkness and went for an evening walk, capturing images that had a chunk of x-factor, largely due to the colours. Monochrome has its advantages, but the trade-off can sometimes be ditching a tool for getting emotion into your images. I wish I was a better colour photographer, the process continues.
As for expectations vs reality, maybe adjust expectations. Those wonderful images that have heft and longevity don’t come around that often. My salve is that they’re often not there to be taken, that I’m just in the wrong place in the wrong time – but then I look at what Eggleston managed with mundane subjects . . .
Great observation, Mer 😉
I too would like to be a better colour photographer. My use of b&w is partly due to an inability to produce a flow of interesting colour images. I tend to blame a very grey world (all cars are now a shade of grey, buildings are a shade of beige, clothes also) compared to the colorful 70s to 90s. But that in itself could be an interesting topic. Documenting the absence of colour in our world.
Yes, Eggleston is a fantastic source of inspiration. It’s easy today to think that his scenes were exotics colourful diners and cars, but they were mundane when he shot them. He inspires me to find interesting things to photograph in today’s mundanity. And, I’m sure that if we all did that, we’d see how different our respective mundane is.
Hi Pascal, allow me to point you in the direction of your esteemed compatriot – if you can’t make it fake it 🙂
Oh, Beau Serge !!
Told you, read Ansel Adams. Dodgy reading, and you easily get burned, but you don’t have to put up with 25 minutes of youtubing 😉
Hi Pascal , I cannot wait for your upcoming blog on Flash Photography – LMAO – Confessions of a Flasher 🙂
😆 😆 😆 Challenge accepted, Ian !
This is one competition I am excluded from. I deliberately chose two cameras as my work horses, that don’t even have a shoe to fit a flash onto them. My flash lies idle in the drawer.
Well, it will be a challenge. I have only used my flash once. It was in an contemporary art exhibition in London. One of the pieces was so silly, I desperately wanted to photograph it. But the “guard” caught before the act with a swift NO NO of the hand. So I sneaked back in later, in true James Bond fashion, unnoticed, clicked and … huge flash from my phone. Needless to say my cover was blow, aided by the fact that my two kids burst into loud laughter and almost peed themselves on the spot. That concluded my flasher gallery, but I intend to make up for a failed start somehow or another 😉
The smart solution these days is an f/1.4 or – even f/0.9 lens, 3200 or – even 6400 ISO, and serious image stabilisation, which enables you to go down as low as 1/5th of a second without trembling.
You can photograph practically anything, like that.
F/0.9 ? Smart but horrendously expensive solution
Nothing wrong with being a grabber, Pascal. Being a bit (or more than a bit) of a grabber myself, I totally understand the need to grab shots of interesting things in your path. The trick, I suppose, to turning your grabs into a project is to rest with a subject once in a while. Just stay there and give it a thorough shooting from every angle. The results could be a project depending on the complexity of the subject. Your included images are wonderful, as usual, especially the lovely one that I’ve entitled “Barred Window with Obelisk”
Thanks Nancee 🙂 There’ that and possibly trying to find themes in existing work. I’m probably too lazy for that, so staying with a subject a bit long may be the best option for me 😉
The problem with “travel” photography in its broadest definition is that it often amounts to semi-random clicking. Sure, you can do your research, get to the Taj Mahal before anyone else to be at the head of the queue, the sprint to the claimed best spot and get a people-free photo that’s exactly the same as everyone else’s who used the same approach to getting the best viewpoint. However, whilst this type of “travel” photography may sell for stock, it’s often devoid of any emotion or originality. “Random clicking” might produce something more original or emotional about a place.
Regarding emotional content, I notice that many forums have many photos of wives, girlfriends and the occasional dog taken with expensive equipment, but often without much photographic skill. The photographer wasn’t able to divorce their emotion for a subject and a critical analysis of how good the picture actually is. We all do it. I respect a photographer who knows how to control light on the studio to create a stunningly lit portrait – but someone snapped in the park with ab expensive lens at open aperture doesn’t demonstrate the same skill and understanding of light. So emotion is a difficult call, because many of us simply get it wrong.
I have a similar problem that I like to photograph travel, street, architecture, portraits and physique sports. No discernable theme or style there!
If we are honest with ourselves and critical of our own work then we can learn and grow towards mastery, when all the thinking about what’s good is replaced with an unconscious understanding.
“Unconscious understanding” perfectly sums it up, Adrian. All those masters of improvisation have one thing in common: intuitive shooting. That’s a lot of thought, thousands of hours, behind the scenes, analysing what they like in their work and the work of others, presumably. And that’s what the market has seeked to sell expensive gear that does all the thinking, as a substitute. But there ain’t no substitute.