Posted on August 30, 2010
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?