Poetry and Photography

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OVERHEARD CONVERSATION:

“Maybe real photography is becoming more like poetry,” he said.

“Most people write poems because they need to write something, not for commercial gain.”

“THAT, my friend, is a very interesting thought” the other said. “But where we are going to get killed is the “real” photography description,” I added. “There are so many people running around with digital cameras and websites who are now attempting to work as professionals.” “I don’t see that as “real” photography,” he added. “It’s content, but not to say it isn’t happening or going away anytime soon.” “In fact,” he said. “I think it is only going to increase in volume.”

“I don’t consider this situation as a bad thing,” one said. “Maybe we will get back to personal, thoughtful, solid work.”

“It’s not bad unless you are trying to make a living,” the other said. “True,” I answered.

Over the past few weeks I’ve, once again, come to the conclusion I don’t really have time to be a photographer.(Cue the broken record and violin.) Yes, I’m working as a photographer once again, at least in part, but it’s not documentary work in the classic sense. What I do now is documentary photography in the modern sense, which is limited time, maximum need. I shoot, record, write, print, design and publish, all in a very short amount of time. When I walk from a shoot today I am always left yearning for “what could have been” given more time.

It’s easy to dismiss this with “Well, what are you gonna do, that’s just the way it is.” Man do I detest this mentality. It’s like when photographers say to me, “I hate digital but that’s what my clients are asking for,” or whenever someone who dedicated their entire adult life to photography caves in to the idiotic demands of someone with little to no stake in the game. You HAVE to fight for what you need as an artist/photographer or whatever you call yourself. You HAVE to establish ground rules, and if they are not there then WALK AWAY.

So I’ve made a change. My current project, which I’ve written about here is entirely stalled. Why? Because I just don’t have the time. This work is fact based, unstructured by me, so I need to be in the field on a regular basis, going back to the same people and places, over and over again. And I have to be there when things are happening and when the light is right. Just don’t have the time. However, this past week I showed this magazine to a variety of people here in Santa Fe and got a variety of positive feedback. I took a good look at the contents and realized there was something there. Just coals, no fire. Smoldering. Waiting for photographic oxygen to give life.

So what I’m going to do is go back in time. When I first started this photography thing it was far more like poetry than a novel. I was content to venture forth in the world looking for ANYTHING resembling a great photograph. Not everything was project based. My work was really just life based. Whether I found myself in country, city or in between I was looking, hunting for singles. As I got better, and as I learned and refined, I began to understand my brain works in sequence, but life and my brain don’t always coincide.

This new/old way of working isn’t easier than long-form work, in fact in might be even more difficult because the truth is those rare, stand alone images are SO very difficult to find. Almost impossible. It can also be frustrating when you look down and the frame counter is on seven and that same roll of film has been in the camera for four weeks.

A friend here in town, wonderful person and good photographer and teacher told me she took three weeks off, traveling to a foreign land by herself and just worked, every single day for three weeks. Alone, focused. Perhaps a day or two off during the trip. Recoup. Rethink. Take notes. “I realized I need this a few times a year to really reengage with what I’m doing,” she said. “I can’t do multiple things simultaneously all the time.”

Now I’m fortunate because I’m a twenty-year journaling addict. I have a home for WHATEVER I shoot. This is a crutch of epic proportion because when you print something and paste it in a book, whatever it is it FEELS really good. Like my color square work. It FEELS like it’s good even when it’s not. These books are like my own private support system.
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The plan is this. Just shoot. Black and white, 35mm. Process myself, scan myself and print myself. (Except for journal prints.) Now, I can’t do this for my Blurb shoots. That film goes to the lab for processing, proofing and scanning, and I’m totally okay with that. But for the rest of my photo-life I’m going to return to the absolute basics. Oh, and no more color square.

I’m looking forward to a little poetry, and even thinking about this has forced me to recollect a variety of images I’ve made that are stand along images not belonging to any body of work, things I never did anything with for this exact reason. Now I have something to do. Write poetry, or attempt to take poetry. I’ve also got a head start on this because of my leap into sketching and painting. In the six months or so since I’ve thrown my hat in this ring I’ve made exactly ONE painting I like. ONE. Cue the action movie scene, “Failure is not an option,” only with me it IS AN OPTION AND ONE I’VE FULLY EXPLORED.

So in a way….I’m single again. Get it? Single? I’m here all week. Now, I just thought of something. This does NOT mean I am suddenly a “street” photographer. I’m not. Not even close. I actually don’t really like the vast majority of street photography I see because it looks detached. Now this is the point for some of it, I get it, but it’s just not my thing. I’m still going to put myself in places I feel images are living, breathing, waiting, but not random street stuff. Besides, I suck at those images anyway.

24 responses to “Poetry and Photography”

  1. Mike says:

    Great post, Daniel; it’s not easy to write one’s innermost thoughts and put them out there for all the world to see, but I’m glad that you do: it is inspiring.

    I think that the sooner real photography becomes like poetry the better. The sooner we start producing photographs for ourselves, and thinking for ourselves, instead of following fashion, or following tradition, the better. Thank you.

    Mike.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike,
      Listened to an author speak yesterday. She was one of the first people I’ve heard say “Don’t just blast your stuff out on social.”
      “It has to be genuine, honest and poignant.”

  2. mike a says:

    yeah the same thing he said.

  3. Great photos have always been like poems. The point is that they are more than just their subject jammed into a frame. A poem is just a handful of words upon which is hung something more, something beyond words. A photo is just a subject or a set of forms or tones or whatever on which is hung something greater and beyond words. Ideally.

    To make good pictures you need to transcend the subject, the tonality, the contrast adjustments and the color balance and all the damn stuff.

    You have to feel something and put that into the picture.

    You can do ask the technical stuff in a group, and you should so you learn it. You can make an appealing picture in a group or a pretty one. And you should.

    You cannot put your heart into a picture or a collection of pictures, as part of a group. Making great pictures is an essentially solitary act. Like writing great poetry.

  4. Tom says:

    If by ‘real photography’ we mean thoughtful and meaningful work I think that will always be there. It will just be obscured by a flood of dreck. Technology assists us all in what we can physically do but it doesn’t help us think or add meaning to these undertakings. I could probably go and buy the equipment to make and edit a movie that would look visually good on the big screen. What I couldn’t do is create a compelling story or a visual narrative so I would never be a ‘real’ movie maker. I see tons of bad video productions made possible by all the portable technologies. Everybody is now a videographer or movie maker. The same holds true for many things that technology has given us but it’s an illusion of sorts. A fools paradise.

  5. lionelB says:

    Unless the poem is Beowulf.

    Taking the poem metaphor, blocks of four images or rows of five images are an interesting discipline. Doesn’t have to be a book.

    I never finished a painting that I liked but every painting I made improved my photography. The central lesson was that discipline is at the heart of capturing an image that speaks. You have to train hard before you earn spontaneity.

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      But to counter with the words of Homer Simpson when he got his first microwave,”What do you mean I have to wait thirty seconds….I WANT IT NOW.”

  6. Jason Timmis says:

    Well Amigo I hear ya. I feel ya – but – if someone as relatively immersed in photography as you can’t find time to work on a project let alone publish one what hope is there for those of us that have jobs far removed from photography?

    😉

    Been thinking about the unbelievable amount of time needed to get anywhere near where I think I’ll feel I have enough to call my current project complete….glad I do it for fun and not money!

    • Smogranch says:

      Jason,
      You just do what you can do. Nothing wrong with that. I just came up with a new series..yesterday…called Just Listen. I can do this while working…kinda. And for now…it’s enough. No publishing with this as of yet, and it’s not a priority.

  7. Mike says:

    With regard to making photographs for money, I can only quote football (soccer) manager Bill Shankley, who said “Football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s much more important than that”. So it is with our photography. It’s more important than making money.
    To make a meaningful body of work you do need time, and sometimes the physical distance between home and subject location will effectively close down a project.
    For those of us who photograph the human condition the situation is different: our subjects can be found close to home: there are stories to be told everywhere.
    How often have you heard that? But it is true, the history of our times is being acted out at home as well as in some exotic location (and that exotic location is just home to someone else who probably complains that ‘nothing ever happens around here’).
    If you want to make money from your photography make the body of work first and then attempt to sell it.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike
      Or get all of the cash up front. That works too. It’s more difficult but doable. There are wonderful things within walking distance of just about everyone, so I agree with you. Hopefully, your imagery will live a lot longer than you. Or me.

  8. Hmm… But does the poem really fulfill you or is it a quick fix in lieu of the story you really want to tell? Singles – a desire, a necessity, a resignation to reality (real or perceived)? Instant gratification feeding the desire to produce something right now? Hopefully not to placate the social media masses. Immediacy? Dare I say, convenience? Dan, you tell stories with your images and you’re damn good at it. Can you do that with singles? I think you can. I know people that do. It is harder, I’ll agree with you there. The short poem and the single image can potentially come quicker than longer form work – maybe. Is time the only issue then? If so, what’s the rush?

    However you decide to proceed, follow what feels right. By all means please keep challenging us with this blog. A lot of us think this stuff – thanks for voicing it.

    • Smogranch says:

      Michael,
      Yes, you can tell stories with singles. That’s the sign of a great image. They are rare, very rare, but the true photogs have been doing this from the beginning. I don’t see it has convenience. I see it as the exact opposite. These images, or singles, are SO rare. Nothing easy about them, and you need luck. I’m off social, could care less about anyone seeing or “approving” them. Poems seem to stay with me.

    • Great food for thought. I was on a path for a while of pursuing singles. I won’t make any claims that any were great images. Something wasn’t feeling right – maybe I was going about it the wrong way. “Must produce something” mentality. That can lead to settling and that’s not good. I’d have something to show for my effort but it wasn’t something special. Lately, I’ve shifted focus to small groups of images to tell a story, testing the waters there. Don’t know if that will work any better for me. Being busy is a blessing and a curse! Yes, poems are a good thing. I’ve actually been reading some Robert Frost in a photo illustrated book I found at the used book store a while back. I like the pairings.

    • Smogranch says:

      Michael,
      There are so many kinds of writing too. I caught five mins of “Before Night Falls” in the hotel before I left for the airport. So great.

  9. Charlene says:

    “A lot of us think this stuff – thanks for voicing it.”

    What Michael said above.

    I’ve no coherent or even conversational response to this post, but I am certainly in agreement that poetry and photography are very alike in motivation, and at their rawest, perhaps also in form – easy to identify, but hard to define. A smidge of the “consciousness we bring to bear in our lives.” That last bit quoted from Cheryl Strayed.

    • Smogranch says:

      Charlene,
      Snippets and moments seem to go hand in hand. I’ve found a new method of working that entirely fits my current reality. One Impossible image paired with audio recording of what it sounded like on scene. So much fun. Got a good one yesterday.

  10. Tad says:

    Recently had the notion to get an old, manual typewriter; not sure why, just a silent urge. So I hit the net to find out what’s what and what to look for. Ran across a wonderful essay by none other than Tom Hanks extolling the merits of mechanical keys and why everyone should own one or run the risk of losing one’s very soul for lack thereof. The gist that I gleaned from my readings was that those manual keystrokes carry a literal and figurative weight of permanence and assurance that is found lacking in the tentative, digital world; a world were words and thoughts are too easily deleted, cut, copied and pasted. It definitely struck a chord with me, and I believe has some relevance to modern photography with regards to tactile permanence, or at least the illusion thereof. I personally believe that it has something to do with the “weight” of our energetic thumbprint; that there is a direct correlation between how much time, attention, and care we put into our creations, and the vibe, soul, and light that we and others may experience as a result.

  11. Kimberly says:

    I enjoy your perspective on photography. It is funny reading what you say about people with digital cameras running around as professional photographers. You know I have an awesome digital camera on my cell phone. Once I take a picture and send it through Google+ editing software I am as professional as it gets. No. No. No. I am kidding. I’ve seen people buy the latest and greatest equipment and sign up for photography lessons and BOOM! Professional photog overnight. Well professional to the untrained eye like myself. This has to be frustrating for real professionals. I have heard the convo that digital is the only way to go if you are going to survive as a professional photographer. I love seeing that you haven’t ditched your craft.

    • Smogranch says:

      Kimberly,
      Anytime anyone tells you there is ONLY one way, or “You have to do “X” or “Y” to be a professional,” run the other way as fast as possible. Same when someone says “Such and such is DEAD, and now we have this NEW method.” Run. They are after your money.

  12. Kimberly says:

    Well, there were a bunch of professional photographers involved and they were discussing water marking pictures vs. not watermarking and advertising your art online social media vs not having your art posted online. This was all very interesting for me because I am not a photographer or at least a professional. Then there was the convo about 3rd gen cameras aka mirrorless cameras vs. DSLR’s and how it was the ONLY way to go back in 2012. From what I heard it was around $1400 for the Sony “mirrorless” back then. That is a pretty expensive piece of equipment if you ask me.

    • Smogranch says:

      Kimberly,
      That is cheap,and most of the people who bought those back in 2012 have bought two or three models since that time and will continue to buy a new model once or twice a year. This is called the “buying cycle” and it’s one of the only things keeping photography afloat.

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