Panama Noir

So I talk a lot about finding our vision or our style, and sometimes I get the feeling there are lots of blank stares out there when I mention this stuff. I see dark rooms, dimly lit with green, glowing screens and people asking, “What is this guy talking about?”
Well, I thought it a good time to show a few pictures that might shed more light on what I’m talking about. As many of you know, I recently spent some time in Panama. My primary goal in Panama was not photographic, but being a photographer I still wanted to make as many good images as possible. Pictures would be a compliment to what I was doing. I actually looked forward to this, thinking I could make a different kind of picture than I normally do. I reserved the new style picture for my color, which I’ll show a little of in the coming days. But being primarily a documentary photographer, a black and white documentary photographer, I’m most accustomed to just walking with my camera. Walking and looking. Looking and walking. All the while THINKING in black and white. This is key folks. I’m not shooting color and thinking black and white.

Now Panama is a colorful place, and I didn’t find it a particularly dark or depressing place either, but my VISION of Panama was different. I immediately recognized that, like many other places, Panama has many personalities. I knew I would develop a theme, in black and white, that reflected one reality and the color would be another. I think the key here is that these dark images, what I’m calling the noir, could be viewed in many different ways, but what I was doing was trying to visualize this place, from this perspective BEFORE I made the images.

A few years ago I was able to view some of Ansel Adam’s straight work prints. I was also then able to compare them to the final prints, and I have to say, I was blown away. Ansel could visualize that final image, and print, as you stood there in the field. And with no chimping and trying again and again. He just saw the scene and saw what we wanted from the scene. In essence I was trying to do the same thing. I had a vision of the place around me and the my translation was a dark one, so I looked and built a series of images that reflected this specific vision. Now here is the important part. I don’t think this is something you do AFTER you return. And I REALLY don’t think this is something you do on the computer or in the darkroom. Sure, that is part of it, but I think you have to learn to see, and make as close to that vision as possible while you are in the field. I see so many people shooting willy nilly, just blasting away from every angle in every light with no apparent vision in mind. Personally, I think this is why we see so much work that looks the same. So when I ask things like, “Do you know who you are with a camera in your hand?” this is what I’m talking about. I don’t believe anyone learns or becomes a better photographer by standing and shooting willy nilly then standing and reviewing the images in camera. I see people doing this all the time and I think it is total BS. Figure out what you want, how you want it and then go get it. Are you going to order something off the visual menu or stuff your face at the visual buffet?

These things don’t happen by chance really. They can but not that often, at least not for me. The idea of being able to enter a new place, visually sum in it up and then produce a specific body of work takes time and practice. And it doesn’t always work. Believe me, I’ve done this and missed, flailed, fallen, ruined or botched more than my share of images. In fact my ratio is WAY in the negative range. I’ve made far more terrible images than good ones.
So in a one week trip, I’m not looking to break records, make a definitive statement or even come close to really understanding a place, a people, etc. If you are thinking that way, let me be the first to tell you, “It doesn’t work that way.” It terms of what I shot, how much. I shot 20 rolls of 35, a total of 720 presses of the beloved shutter. I would imagine the film shooters out there saying, “Nice.” And I would imagine the digital shooters saying, “That’s it?” Yep, that’s it. Again, I’ve done this long enough to know what I want and what I’m looking for. When I’m shooting a certain theme I need a certain set of ingredients. Sure I’m looking for moments along the way, accidents along the way, I’m experimenting, taking chances, wasting film, etc, but my focus is on that theme and searching for sets of ingredients that materialize and then vaporize in a VERY short amount of time.

So whether you are shooting a wedding, a portrait, a commercial job, etc, I think knowing your style, or vision is one of the fundamental aspects of being a photographer. Oddly enough, in the age of the “instant” photographer, I think this is one of the key things getting LOST in the shuffle to sell, promote, get work, etc. I spent YEARS learning photography before I really began to assess what direction I wanted to go. That means years studying light and composition. Sure, I was working at a paper while doing this, but my images were, for the most part, not worth looking at. But all these years later, after many trials and tribulations, when I go out with my camera I find it very rewarding to feel like I know what I’m doing and I feel like I know what I’m looking for.
So next time you are out working try making a theme of like minded images. Then do it again. And again. Ask yourself what is it about this place? What am I trying to say?

12 responses to “Panama Noir”

  1. A camera is a fine precision instrument when used properly can tell a fascinating personal narrative. Interesting take as Panama is generally thought of as a fantastically colorful place with plenty of character. Many photographers work on their style and bodies of work for ages before becoming known for it. It takes perseverance. Keep at it. Viva La Pelicula!

    • Smogranch says:

      I think the color reflects an entirely different feel and view. I’m interested to combine them somehow and see if I can make it work.

  2. Suzanne Revy says:

    Great post… I love the dog picture.

    And you’re right… having an idea of what the picture will be in the end (at the beginning) is a very important step for any photographer, but there’s still the part where the camera sees (and records) what the eye doesn’t. Can be your blessing or curse… and when you start to become really aware of the difference between how YOU see, and how the camera records it, then you’re pictures will start to come together. Takes a lot of picture making practice for it to happen naturally.

    I’m often surprised and pleased by what I get… and I’m not shooting randomly at all!! And it will happen when you trust your vision, trust how you see, know your camera, know your process, and know what you want from it.

  3. Suzanne Revy says:

    Oh rats… can’t edit!! Pardon the grammar!! Oy!!

    • Smogranch says:


      I know exactly what you are talking about. Often times I talk to myself about not being predictable, to keep trying things, new things, take chances, etc. So even thought I know what I THINK I’m looking for, I’m still experimenting, but not willy nilly. Perhaps it is a fine line but one that I really enjoy walking. I think the dog image is a perfect example. I have a book series called “Dogs Can’t Read,” so I’m always looking. But, I’m also trying to incorporate any good picture into my main body of work. I’d made a few frames of the dogs and said to myself, “no, too predictable,” “how does this scene really feel to you?” I stopped for a second and thought about how I felt and THEN I made this picture. I felt uncomfortable, agitated and like something dark was happening.

  4. Larry says:

    You couldn’t have written this before I went to Texas! ;-}

  5. Larry says:

    Thanks. Good food for thought and useful as well.

  6. mike says:

    Wow. Lots to chew on here. Gonna have to think about this for a bit.

  7. Terrific post! I’ve been in a transition period for the past year or two and really trying to find out what exactly it is I want to be shooting (and figuring out what to do with whatever it is). Your eloquence always seems to help me clear my thoughts.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Bruce,
      Well, I sure don’t feel eloquent. It always feel like a struggle to find any sense of balance, especially today when the industry moves in a direction that is so not where I want to go.
      I’m really not sure what the future holds, but I realize the most important thing regarding my photography is to only produce my work, whether that be for me, or for someone else.

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