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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