The great photographer Edward Weston once said “I see no reason to record the obvious.” But isn’t recording the obvious what most of us do most of the time? What are the alternatives?
Cameras record everything
As I have pointed out many times, our marvelous high tech sensors are great recording devices. They do a great job of capturing what they are pointed at.
Because of that, these days our phones have become an invaluable data capture device. We record a sign we want to look into later, or a wine label we want to remember, or selfies of us and friends. When I rent a car I always do a 360 degree bracket of it before leaving the lot, just in case there are and disputes about when some damage happened. We have our phone with us, so when in doubt, snap a picture.
Most of this is never intended to be considered art. It is just data. Maybe memories. They are a ubiquitous part of our lives.
Most pictures are of a clear, well defined subject
Most of these images, whether on our phone of our “real” camera, follow the rules of composition we have been taught. The subject is centered and as sharp and well lit as we can do. Perhaps we have a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. Maybe we have made the lighting interesting: high key or low key or strong side light.
What is common is that the photos are “of” something. They are generally straight representation or even utilitarian.
I do not dismiss this as unimportant. But it is not art. If we want to make art we have to take a different path.
Can there be more?
Trillions of pictures are taken every year, no exaggeration or typo. One more image I take is just a drop of water in the ocean. Why should I bother? How can I stand out? What can we do to be a new voice?
We are often told to be creative. But almost everything has already been tried. True creativity, in the sense of something that has never been seen, is very rare. We may never do something truly creative, but we can do work that is fresh, because it captures our feelings and point of view.
If we try to get in touch with what we feel and our reaction to a scene, we can capture it in a way that no one else has seen. We are unique, in that our thoughts and experiences and values are different from anyone else. Therefore we should be able to see things somewhat different.
This difference that is unique to us is what sets our work apart from everyone else. We just have to follow our unique view and not try to make our work look like everyone else’s.
Look for the story within the story
You walk up to a beautiful landscape. There are 20 other photographers there snapping away. What do you do? Are you going to make the same image as all the others?
Go ahead and shoot it. Capture a record of that standard scene. Get that out of the way. Now start responding to it at a deeper level. What do you really see? It may be a famous scene, but what draws you? Everyone else is using wide angle lenses. Maybe you feel like using a telephoto to isolate just part of it. Small sections of a scene can give an impression of the whole. This is making the picture “about” something.
It doesn’t matter what people expect to see there. What do you see? What tweaks your interest? One fresh, interesting frame is better than a whole memory card full of “me too” shots. You are the audience you have to please.
I find it useful to keep asking myself questions and demanding an answer. Especially “why?”. Forcing myself to go through 3 or 4 levels of why questions about a scene can reveal a lot. But only if I make myself answer truthfully and with some detail. It is too easy to accept a vague idea of what I feel. No, be specific.
Can you find something more there than the surface image? Is it actually interesting? Does it excite you? Paraphrasing the great Jay Maisel, “If the thing you’re shooting doesn’t excite you, what makes you think it will excite anyone else?”.
So peel back the layers until you discover the truth or essence of what you are drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a deep, profound truth. It could simply be “I really like the way the water is flowing over that rock.” But you have identified what part of the scene you are drawn to and why. Now the resulting image can clearly convey your intent.
Edward Weston famously told us “This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” (Guy Tal based a whole book on the idea. It is good. Get it). This statement is pretty Zen-like, but it brings up a lot to think about.
How can a picture of something as simple as a rock actually be about a deeper idea? Maybe it can or maybe it can’t. I have to say that some of the pictures in Mr. Tal’s book did not bring deep concepts to me. That is the problem of conveying feelings to another person. It doen’t always work. But, the artist attempted it and discovered something meaningful for him. Perhaps I cannot perceive it, but it was there for the artist. It is an honest attempt to bring me more than a rock.
Get over the obvious
So I encourage us all to dig below the obvious when we are creating our images. The obvious may be pretty, but is there any substance to it, in the sense of engaging our brain, our thoughts, our feelings?
I have come to believe that I just bring you the same images you would have shot if you were there, I have probably not added much value for you. I owe it to you to force myself to understand what I was drawn to and capture my feelings, while making a beautiful image.
New Orleans French Quarter comes alive at night. The color and interest of this scene really drew me in, but it lacked depth. I had an idea of what I would like to see and I refined it as I watched various people stop and look in. This person finally paused there in the entrance, alone, questioning, swiveling. He seemed torn between conflicting ideas. Go in or keep going? To me this captured inner conflict and moral ambiguity. Choices.