Why?

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to speak to a class at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The chair of the photography department, Dennis Keeley, is a very cool cat, and in addition to his life as chair he has lived several other interesting lives, including photographer and musician. A few years back, Dennis paired me with another photographer, Patrick Hebert, and we taught a class about photographers working with NGO’s. To say that Patrick is a good teacher just doesn’t go far enough to describe what he does or how we works. In short, he’s wicked smart.
So, when Patrick, who goes by Pato, as me to come and speak to his class, I did.
We discussed photography, styles, techniques, history and of course, books. Overall, this was a fun night, but there was one thing that has been lingering in my mind. One thought. One question actually.
I showed a brief slideshow of my work from Sicily, something I do because I use that work to describe books, marketing, portfolios, etc, and not just as “Look at how good I am.”
Shortly after the slideshow a student asked me why my work looks the way it does.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
Now, saying “I don’t know” isn’t a great way of making a point, and Pato being Pato he added, “Well, it’s not that he doesn’t know….” Then proceeded to talk about style and how these things come about.
But, for a second, I really didn’t know. I didn’t have an answer, but what I did have was a feeling.

Earlier in this same exact day, another photographer sent me a PDF of a book he made from a recent trip to India. This photographer shot all color, 35mm, and as I perused his book something very odd happened. One image depicted a middle-aged man inside a house with blue walls. The image was cropped into a square. The man was wearing a red turban and had an open fire burning near him in the center of the room. Again, the walls were blue, the turban red, the man had a great color to his skin and the fire projected orange light all throughout the interior. Only I didn’t really see any of it. I stared at that image, in real time, with my eyes open and what I saw was a horizontal, black and white image that wasn’t color but was about the rim of light that lit the man from behind. My mind literally took the blueprint my friend projected on the screen morphed it into something that my brain either wanted to see or needed to see. I kept staring and literally had enough time to ask myself, “Is this really happening.”
Okay, so maybe I was Indian in past life, or maybe that magic marker I inhaled during my lunch break had lingering effects, but I don’t think so. I think I’ve either learned to see this way, or perhaps, even more interesting is that this is what my vision really is.
So when those students looked at my dark, grainy, contrasty work from Sicily and innocently asked, “Why does it look like that.” Well, maybe because that is how I see. Not how my camera works or how I prepped the files to look. Perhaps this is how my brain interprets the world?
I’ve read that many male of our species are color blind and I’m wondering if perhaps THAT has something to do with it? Trees are kinda orange right? Okay, all on the same page here.
Seriously, this has been lingering in my mind for over a week now and I’m still not sure how to explain it. My eyes were open, they were glued to this image and yet I saw something entirely different. And the image I saw was dodged, burned, highlighted and emphasized precisely what I found to be most important, the direction and quality of the light.
I think the term “vision” gets thrown around like single bills on a Friday night in Vegas, but in many cases, this is just horse%$%^ thrown around to sell something. And folks, I’m not saying I’m a visionary, or that my vision, if I have one, is incredible. What I’m saying is perhaps I HAD a vision, and this vision was reminding me of something, or filtering something for me. I for one think this is entirely real.
When I’m in the field and I enter a scene where I KNOW there are images, a place or time when I can FEEL those image forces around me, this type of vision is what I try to draw from to find my sense of clarity in the clutter of the world. (Stolen from Peter Schwepker) This internal filter takes over and I either naturally, on a good day, apply this, or on a bad day, fight to find it.
I know there could be many reason why this happened, reasons like short attention span, not paying attention, learned behavior, selfishness, etc. Again, not sure.
I’m not sure this has happened to you or you think I’m entirely full of $#$%, but I’d be curious to know.

31 responses to “Why?”

  1. Yes! This is vision. I’ve been dancing around this idea for months now and your example of seeing someone else’s photograph in a different way nailed it. It’s why sometimesI look at what are considered “great” photographs and they do nothing for me. I simply don’t see that way, rightly or wrongly. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. rodney says:

    Maybe that’s why I find myself wandering around all the time with an EPL1 with lens adapter and canon nifty fifty. It fits what I see, and what I like to see. Is this the only way I shoot? Of course not; but when I’m not doing some kind of retail job, that’s what you’ll see me with. One look, one so-called style, and one very happy guy behind a camera. Thanks for helping validatie my enjoying that freeedom

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Rodney,

      I think different people respond to different….things or visual things. Salgado shoots, for the most part, 35mm, black and white. The next guy, color square, just fits for them.

  3. I haven’t had the experience you describe of seeing a photo in a completely different way, but I do know that things look different to me than they do in the photos I make of them, or in the photos that other people make.

    A huge part of it is color, and I’m finding that as I get older (I’m 41 now), my sense of color–my sensitivity to it, my ability to distinguish among colors–is the only thing that seems to be getting better. I look sometimes and nearly stumble due to the sense of vertigo when I realize how strong, vivid, and distinct the colors are that I see.

    I still haven’t managed to make many–or any?–photos that reflect that but neither have I been consciously aware of it, either, at least not until this post of yours. Thank you for sharing this idea and helping me take one more step towards figuring out why I keep pressing the shutter and processing the files.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Tommy,

      That’s interesting. Maybe you have made more than you think, but you might see your own colors in a different way. I get “Why black and white?” a lot. I’ve grown kinda tired of trying to answer because I don’t want to sound like a crazy man.

  4. Charlene says:

    I experience what you just described in a totally reverse way. I often look at other people’s photographs and think “never in a million years would I have seen this”. This is never more evident than if I go photowalking with others. Same location, too many different ways of seeing it.

    Whatever you want to call it, it’s just you: A bunch of neurons that spark in a certain way when fed light filtered through ocular tissue.

    • Smogranch says:

      Charlene,

      That is really great. I love seeing another photographer’s world and saying, “I would have never seen that,” or “I would have walked right by that.” At times, makes me jealous, at other times, makes me think.

  5. Kevin Keefer says:

    Even though I have studied black and white, I have not shot enough to really understand it on a personal level. I see shots that I think would look good black and white. I have been meaning to turn my LCD to black and white while shooting RAW so even though you get color files all you see is the b/w. Yes, Daniel I will be buying a large package of Tri-X also. All I know right now, is I am drawn to it. I am no scientist, but I wonder if after so many years of shooting you somehow mapped your brain to see that way. Remember eye exams where they would mess with you using color and black and white images and “find the red dot”. I also wonder if other long-time black and white shooters would have had the same experience. It is vision.

    • Smogranch says:

      Kevin,

      I think it relates to everything you mention, and probably a lot more. Color, our brains, eyes and yes, training or learned behavior. What I hope is that even though I see that way, I hope I don’t limit myself by doing so.

  6. mike a says:

    personally, im not sure if i ever had any style or vision or whatever. maybe i”m just a snapshot artist or something. back in 2006 i was diagnosed with macular degeneration, today at 46 yrs. old i can still see pretty good, some straight lines look a little curved but i can live with it. my doctor says he is surprised it hasnt gotten worse yet. so i have decided that i am no longer going to worry about my (look) in photography. i’m going to shoot from my heart good or bad and let it all fall where it falls. i feel i only have a short time to get it all in. i just want to say to everyone, shoot like there’s no tomorrow, look ,feel, embrace every moment in the field. even with my eyes getting worse i can see so much more now. thanks daniel for such a great blog.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike, what a personal response. Sorry to hear about your situation. I seem to be hearing this more and more these days and wonder if this is happening more or is it my imagination? I LOVE your attitude. Just go shoot. I feel we, me especially, get wrapped up in ……in….stuff, that really doens’t matter.
      Just go do it. I agree.
      Shoot, view, enjoy, learn, do it again. Keep me posted. Where do you live?

    • mike a says:

      south carolina, a couple hours from atlanta

    • Smogranch says:

      Ah, okay. I’ve heard of South Carolina.

  7. Great post again. It remember in one of my early black and white courses shooting TriX and learning to see tonal range rather than colors to make a composition. One of the quotes that my instructor gave us was along the lines of color photography is like seeing a movie and black and white is like reading the book. Both are equally creative and great ways to tell a stories, and sometimes we are cinematographers and sometimes we are authors. It all just depends on what we want to emphasize in our work and how we want to tell the most important part of our story.

  8. Sean says:

    Sure you haven’t got cat vision? 🙂

  9. rodney says:

    So Daniel,
    I’m just thinking…
    I can’t afford to do the Leica and Tri-x thing, but….
    I do have a couple epl-1 bodies and some pretty cool canon primes and a lens adapter that kinda makes them all work together. Like I said, I love the 50 on there, but I also got a 24 and and 85. Pretty good range when you consider the crop factor. Maybe I might start shooting a lot more like that. Square crop, b&w, and only the primes I own already. Would be kinda nice to leave the 5d at home. Not looking for permission or validation, just blowing off a little steam and bouncing around ideas. Thanks for 2 things:
    1. Being a huge inspiration
    2. Providing a place where I can voice goofy ideas like this.

    • Smogranch says:

      Well, first of all, you’re welcome. Glad you are finding something of value here. Goofy ideas rule. In terms of experimenting with film I think you can do this for very little money. If you can’t afford Leica and TRI-X then get something else. Process in the sink. It’s a lot of fun and will teach you to shoot in a different way. More than anything else, again, it’s just fun.

  10. Cathy says:

    I keep trying to ‘see’ in black and white, it just doesn’t come so easily. Saying that, the times that I’ve gone out with that type of vision as my intention, have been richer, slower and more considered.
    Not to say I achieve very much, but I do love the sensation of slowing down that it give to me.

    • Smogranch says:

      I think that each of us is different. But, I also think you can sometimes learn to stack the deck in your favor when it comes to seeing one way or the other. Just looking at a book can do it.

  11. Brendan says:

    It sounds like you can slip into “the zone” very quickly and subconciously, when you find yourself in a scene where you know images are around?
    I tend to over think and then have a head full of other peoples images before I go out, and that can be crippling in both my personal action and vision. Occasionally though I forget all that, and that’s when the creativity (and my “vision”) flows. Maybe practice (certainly not worrying about kit) enables this change of mental gear?

    • Smogranch says:

      You know what you said about “other people’s images,” is very important. I’ve been hearing that from others a lot lately. I can see that being an issue if you haven’t had enough time to explore your own vision. And don’t think I’m immune to this either. At times I’m fumbling in the dark.

  12. Cathy says:

    I’ve actually started limiting my image consumption. i find that I get inspired from too many directions at once, and end up sort of stalled and saturated in the middle of it all and can’t see a thing for myself.
    It’s also good to reclaim that time back from the internet. It’s a tangled place that can be hard to extricate yourself from once you’ve dived in for the day.

  13. Smogranch says:

    It’s an interesting book and well worth reading. Of course, keeping in line with the message, I can’t remember what it is about…….

  14. Kevin Keefer says:

    This is a very interesting book. Think I get the Kindle version :).

  15. I shoot a lot of black and white film and feel much more at home there than with color. My local lab closed last year and I decided to develop my own film rather than pay to ship out of town. I recently shot some of the new Portra 400 and had a difficult time trying to make the images satisfying to me. The colors were distracting. I converted them to B&W in PS and suddenly I could see my original intent. Do you ever shoot color film with the intention to convert it to B&W later? I originally thought the control of each color in conversion would make it worth shooting color but I prefer the grain in B&W and the contrast control in development.

    • Smogranch says:

      Short answer…”No.” Iv’e done it but only after messing up and realizing I only had something on color. I shoot black and white and color in such different ways, so I’m trying to see in either or.

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