Why Photography?

Airport at night

Photography is my chosen art. Obviously I wouldn’t continue doing it unless I loved it. But why? Why photography?

Faults

I’ll be honest. As a modern art form, there are negative aspects to photography. I’m talking about people’s view of it, not what I believe of it. And I’m not making a pun about photographic negatives. Many “serious” artists and critics view it as a lesser art, if art at all. After all, it is too easy. Just point your camera at something and take a picture. Where is the art?

The critics view photography as a mechanical art. Where the camera does the work and the photographer just holds the camera and pushes a button. How can it be “Art”, with a capital A, if it is fast and easy?

Billions of people are taking trillions of pictures every day. So it is considered a “common” craft. Just for selfies. But those critics discount the difficulty of doing something special in a field that is so crowded. Millions of books are written, but we still celebrate the relatively few authors who creates a standout book.

And photography can be reproduced pretty easily. You can get a stack of prints made at Walmart for a few bucks. This, too, devalues it in many people’s estimation.

And it’s getting to where your AI chatbot can make a fairly realistic picture. Is there any photography anymore? Or painting, for that matter?

Alternate view

But let’s examine some of those statements. I’m a firm believer that something is not correct just because people say it, especially if it is “experts” talking.

It is true that trillions of photos are taken every year. Very few of them are considered art, even by the people taking them. They are for utilitarian purposes, mostly selfies to post on social media. Of the ones whose makers consider them to be art, most are, well, forgettable. In this crowded field where the majority of people on the planet have a camera and take pictures, it is extremely difficult to take a memorable one. It takes a lot of skill and vision and technique and luck to make one of the exceptional ones.

And the fact that they can be reproduced easily should not be a factor, except for top collectors. The ability to make prints is actually democratizing. And a great art print is a very different thing than a cheap drug store copy. The materials and ink and care that goes into an art print sets it apart. If you have seen and handled one you have experienced the quality factor. A great print can be shown on your wall the rest of your life and be passed down to your heirs.

Even painters very often have prints of their works for sale. And they usually request a significant price for them. Does that make their prints not art?

It’s what I can do

I said I was being honest. I long ago discovered I have little talent or patience for drawing or painting, and sculpting is too slow and expensive for me. Does that mean I’m not an artist? Absolutely not. I found areas I have an inclination for.

I originally latched onto photography as a creative outlet to my highly logical, left-brained Engineering career. Intuitively I knew I had to have a balance. It served it’s purpose, even though I wasn’t very good at it.

But being somewhat obsessive and a perfectionist, I later pushed myself to learn and understand why I considered myself mediocre. So I improved my knowledge and education and technique. I learned about design and composition and lighting and editing. And I moved beyond just straight representational images of big landscape scenes and even pushed myself into uncomfortable areas like abstract and surreal.

So when I retired, I was eager to go full time into art as a creative activity. I do not regret it. It has been a great move for me and I feel I have grown rapidly. I would have gotten frustrated and quit if I had tried to force myself into doing art I was not suited for.

Fast moving

A joy to me in photography is that it is relatively fast moving. Move, see, compose, shoot. I get into a flow and can spend hours creating. And likewise in post processing. Unlike some photographers, I like it. Working with the images on the computer is another important part of the creative process of photography. I can edit for hours and not even realize what time it is.

This pace and rhythm of photography is part of what works for me. An important component of my creative energy. I know myself enough to know I would not be happy spending weeks working on a painting, to then have to set it aside and not touch it again.

My images are much more malleable. Even after “finishing” one I can get a new idea and revisit it, maybe alter it, maybe create a new work based on it. What I shoot is raw material. The elements emerge, combine, re-emerge and get re-imagined in a very fluid way. I love this.

Versatile

This immediacy of photography also enables one of the other things I love about it. I can do it anywhere, almost any time. Day or night; walking around town; looking out an airplane window; winter or summer; in the rain or snow or fog; alone or with other people.

If most painters see a scene they want to paint, what do they do? Take a picture. They use that to work up sketches to define their image. I skip directly to the end. My “sketch” may well be the finished image. I’ve done 20 interesting images before they finish a sketch.

I never have to worry about what pallets of colors I have with me. Did I bring a large enough blank canvas? Do I have the right grades of pencils with me? Are they sharp? Don’t care. I can take a crisp, detailed shot of a rusty truck and turn around and take a time exposure of a stream. The camera is a powerful tool that lets me express my art in a variety of ways. But I am the artist and only I determine what I want to accomplish.

Element of reality

Another aspect of photography that is unique and significant to me is that photography contains elements of reality. The sensor records the scene in front of it as imaged by the camera lens, to the extent I allow it. That is, I may blur it or overexpose it or underexpose it. That is an artistic choice. But I am working with a capture of reality.

Photography is unlike any other art in this respect. To me, there is something honest in that. That, even if I composite or heavily edit or alter the colors or tones to create a completely different scene, still, the component parts are pieces of reality.

I enjoy images of mine that are straight captures of a real scene and I enjoy the ones that are created scenes that do not exist. Both contain reality. One much more directly than the other.

I don’t use Photoshop as a blank canvas to paint imaginary scenes on. I have no problem with those who do that. It is another good talent. But I don’t. Everything I create is built from pieces of reality. In my weird value system, it wouldn’t be photography if it did not contain actual elements captured by a camera.

Easy to reproduce

I love that after editing an image and thinking it is almost ready, I can make a test print on my printer in my studio. In a few minutes. A print on paper is very different from an image on screen. Most of us are only used to seeing images on screens.

But a well done print on high quality paper is an entirely different thing. It becomes a physical object with presence. Our relationship with it is different. We hold it and look at it differently. We feel the texture and the forms and colors of the image are seen in a new way. A print changes our perception.

And this is just a test print. Usually it will have to be edited more and reworked is some ways to eliminate problems we did not notice until it was on paper. After a few cycles I now know how to print this image. This next one that comes out of the printer is one I can be proud of. We eagerly show it off, because it expresses our intent, what we saw and felt when we captured the image. It has become a physical piece of art. And I can push a button and make another one for you. Does this devalue the medium? Not to me. I think that is fantastic.

This is a unique feature of photography. I love it.

Photography is a versatile, fast moving, high quality art form. It has advantages and disadvantages over other types of media. But that is true whenever you compare one type to another. It is the perfect art form for me. I hope I have given you a clear picture of why photography for me.

Today’s image

A busy airport at night is a wonderland of lights and shapes and movement. If you are that nerd who gets his camera out and shoots out the window during takeoffs and landings. I am. I love the colors and abstract forms. 🙂

It also illustrates one advantage of photography I discuss in other places. The ability to record time. Not just a still instant, but movement over a period of time if we wish.

This is one of those scenes you seldom see painted. We cannot see this directly with our eye. The painter would have to take the picture then paint it. But is that different from taking a photograph and making a print?

The Subject?

A no subject image I had to shoot

I wrote recently about the sometimes ambiguity of the subject. But the subject itself? I’m not sure I care what it is. Is that heresy?

Subject is king

People sometimes travel halfway around the world to photograph a certain thing or event. As I write this, several of my friends are preparing to travel to photograph the upcoming total solar eclipse. Or if a friend corners you to watch vacation pictures or videos, it is of their trip to [______] – fill in the blank of the place you don’t care about.

The point is that it seems most people are highly fixated on getting the best images of particular subjects that are important to them. This is probably perfectly natural. After all, when we go to the trouble of taking a picture, it should be ‘of’ something, shouldn’t it?

Most photo instructors emphasize this. Actually, they initially put beginners through a boot camp and hazing packed with technical details and jargon about aperture and shutter speed and ISO and depth of field and … If a beginner survives that, and are still interested in photography, then they are taught to have a foreground, middle ground, and background and a clear and strong subject. Then you work on composition, lighting, exposure, etc. This is standard practice.

Is it wrong? No, but learning photography is actually a difficult thing. There are many technical levels and esthetic aspects to learn. It takes a lot of practice to get good at all of them. People have different preferred learning styles, so a one-size-fits-all regime may not be appropriate.

A genre

Many well meaning experts firmly recommend that their listeners have to pick a subject area and specialize in it. They say if you are going to make a place for yourself in this over crowded field, you have tp be well known for one particular thing.

Are they wrong? Probably not. It is good advice if your goal is money or fame. So their advice is to become the recognized wildlife photographer, or portrait photographer, or street photographer, or night sky photographer, or … pick your specialty.

Then they tell us to look at what our “competitors” are being successful with and do more like that. While I can’t believe any “authority” would recommend that artists copy what other artists are doing, I can see where it is shrewd advice for maximizing your income. If you don’t care about your art.

Develop a body of work

And then we are told that we have to have a body of work. This sounded mysterious and difficult to me until I figured out they were just saying we have to be able to demonstrate we have done this enough to be taken seriously and we have to show the sustained quality of our work. Oh, well, sure. I have to do that for myself every day. I would call it my portfolio.

But then they say our portfolio must have a consistent subject focus and style and look. One “expert” I heard recently answered a question about this by using an analogy of an aspiring musician. The gist was if you are submitting an audition tape, it should all be similar type and style. You wouldn’t do some Country & Western and some rock and some bluegrass and some rap.

Maybe that is good advice if you are trying to break into the music industry. But I don’t think it works for me in my art.

Conventional wisdom is that our work needs to have a theme or be centered on a cause. After all, we can’t be a “serious” artist unless we are dealing with serious, life and death subjects. Right?

And we need to have a recognizable look that sets us apart. And our work needs to be cropped to a consistent presentation format, like square. Of course, it should have consistent color grading so it all looks like it came from the same artist. And so on.

Omnivorous

Some of us have real trouble with this, though. We are missing that ambition gene that allows us to suborn our artistic vision to the needs of marketing and fame. At least, I suffer from this defect.

I consider my artistic interest to be omnivorous and wide ranging. To the point where I would assert that I don’t care what the subject is. If it interests me, I will shoot it. And almost anything can interest me under the right conditions.

I am coming to see that it is not usually the subject that makes a good image. It is my reaction to it, My relation to it. The interest, even love, that comes across to me and my viewer.

Ultimately, an image can seldom be great unless I love it. And few images of an “interesting” subject will be great to me unless there is a strong connection there. I have heard people debating if you should take a picture if you’re not sure it will be a “portfolio” image. I say, if it interests you, take it. You won’t know until later what your reaction to it will really be.

An artist

Am I an artist? My answer is “yes”. The style and theme of any image in my body of work is a record of what I was drawn to at that place and that time when I made the image. I refuse to restrict myself to only shooting rusty 1950’s Chevy trucks in black & white and square cropped. It would make me crazy if I closed down my options like that. I love rusty 1950’s trucks, but I could not exist on a exclusive diet of them.

I may travel half way around the world to go to a place I am interested in and want to explore. But I don’t go to photograph a subject there. As I explore, I will likely find many images to take. But when I take one, it is because the whole scene grabbed me and tweaked my interest.

Let me give an example to make it concrete. I am unlikely to ever go on a safari in Africa. But if I did, I wouldn’t care if I came back with a great shot of a lion. Why? I don’t really care about lions. I would be more interested in a nicely formed tree in great light with a stormy sky. Or a native tribesman. Or …

What seems to happen is, as I’m looking around, something clicks. My subconscious triggers a message to my conscious mind to let me know “there’s a picture there! Get it!”. When that happens, it is not just about a subject. Its the subject, in this place, at this time, in this light, with me in this mood. Bam. That makes an image. Check my current online portfolio. I try to organize it to make it easier for you to browse, but you will see a wide range of subjects and styles.

The subject

So the subject? Not as important to me as it seems to be to a lot of people. The subject is only part of a good image. And it’s usually not even the most important part. At least to me. So yeah, I will go so far as to say I don’t care about the subject.

This is just my personal approach. You do what works for you. I hope you get the shot you want.

Today’s image

Today’s image is an example of the subject not being as important to me as the overall look and how I felt about it.. You could argue there is no real subject. I loved it and had to shoot it, even though it was difficult. I won’t say here what it is, but if you write me I will at least give you some hints. 🙂

Find the It-ness

Old rusty International Truck. I finally got it's portrait.

Sometimes you just have to make up a word when you can’t find the right one. In this case Jay Maisel made it up. I think he is referring to seeing beneath the surface. If we find the it-ness, we are starting to get to a level where we understand more about the scene. Then maybe we can show it to our viewers.

See past the obvious

Jay seemed to be telling us to get past the first surface response and burrow down to a deeper response to a subject. The normal mode for a lot of us is to see a scene we like, pull the camera up to our eye, and shoot. Done. Go on.

But I think Jay i suggesting we slow down and not necessarily give in to our first instinct. With a little more thought and introspection we often come to a different relationship with a subject or scene. In other words, stop and think. Get in touch with why you are reacting to it and see if you can bring that out more.

There are 3 very interesting videos about Jay Maisel on Kelby One (I am not affiliated with them and I get no benefit for referring them; but it would be worthwhile to subscribe long enough to watch these 3). In each, Jay is spending a day walking around with Scott Kelby, demonstrating his technique and thought process. They are very worthwhile (when Jay is talking, not Scott). It seems like Jay is shooting quickly and instinctively, but keep in mind you are seeing the result of 50 or more years of finely honed craft. When asked about an image he can always articulate a detailed reason why he took it, what it meant to him, and why he composed it like he did. And when he reviews his seemingly quickly grabbed images, it make you want to tell him “I hate you”.

So maybe there is the promise that, with enough practice, little conscious thought is required.

Wabi-Sabi

I always hesitate to bring wabi-sabi up. It is easy to step off into really deep stuff. Apparently you can’t really appreciate it’s true meaning unless you are a native Japanese steeped in Zen Buddhism. There is no simple English translation.

But that doesn’t deter me from trying. Even though I am American and not at all a Buddhism practitioner. 🙂

Explanations often start from breaking down the two words wabi and sabi. One good definition says:

Wabi’ expresses the part of simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection. On the contrary, ‘Sabi’ displays and expresses the effect that time has on a substance or any object. Together ‘wabi-sabi’ embraces the idea of aesthetic appreciation of aging, flaws, and the beauty of the effects of time and imperfections. The two separate parts when put together, complete each other. They express simplicity and the truest form of an object.

That seems to be an elegantly simple expression of finding the it-ness of something. Regarding a thing with all its flaws and imperfections and appreciating how it changes and weathers and even decays over time is really getting in touch with its essence.

More than the subject

I recently explored the idea of the subject not being the subject. Going on beyond that is this notion of capturing the it-ness of something may be more important that just representing the thing.

The image with today’s post is an example. This old International truck fascinated me for years. It is about 50 miles from my house, not on the way to anywhere, but I visited it many times. I was never satisfied that I had photographed “it”. I took many pictures of the truck, but I never felt I actually got what I felt about it.

Finally, one day I was going by and I knew I needed to visit it one more time. Some junk was starting to encroach on it and, after it setting there rusting for years, it seemed possible that the opportunity might go away.

But this time, instead of jumping out and taking pictures, I just stared and thought a while. I walked around it slowly. All the while I was trying to explain to myself what my feelings were about this truck and how I would take its portrait.

After thinking a long time, I basically just took this one image. To me, it perfectly captures the personality, the story, the history – the it-ness – of the magnificent old truck. I felt a relationship to it.

The next time I came by there, it was all fenced off and junk was stacked all around. The picture opportunity was gone. That makes me sad, but I finally had the picture I wanted. I believe this is a true and accurate portrait of this giant of the Colorado plains. This will always be my memory of that good old truck that I have known a long time.

This is a wabi-sabi story. It is also an example of another of Jay Maisel’s maxims: shoot it now, because it won’t be there when you come back.

Find interest

I have said several times that we can find interest in almost anything if we try. We have to get over looking just at the surface. Maybe it’s not the prettiest of its kind. Maybe there are imperfections. Do those give it character? Does it tell a story of it’s past?

As an extreme example, we have had a lot of forest fires here in Colorado in the last few years. As have many places. It is sad to see a beautiful forest destroyed. But I have found great beauty in burn scars and the re-growth that is happening.

It seems to be more and more a case for me that interest does not equate to pretty. Almost to the extent of being a negative correlation, where pretty implies less interest. So a perfect flower is a thing of beauty, but does that make it the most interesting? I’m not saying it is always true for me, but a “past its prime” specimen may tell a more interesting story of struggle, survival, endurance, and the passing of time.

Try it. Like my example of working on the truck, slow down. Think more. Figure out the it-ness of the thing. Then shoot to capture that.

Lighten Up

Reflections on flowing water.

By lighten up I don’t suggest we make more high key images. It’s not a bad idea if you don’t do it much. But I mean to give our viewers more opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

Serious

Most of us take the world very seriously. Of course, there are serious issues we live with all the time. I don’t minimize them. But I learned from an expert in culture that, being an official old guy, I typically have less anxiety than most of you younger people.

Personally, I’m glad. I hate going around burdened down with angst and fear. Instead, when I’m out taking pictures I see joy and hope and feel uplifted.

I’m not trying to change the world with my images. At best, I hope to help a few people have a better day by looking at my work.

But another way to lighten things up it to be more ambiguous. I notice that most of my work has a clear subject. Low ambiguity. Also, not so many questions for you to answer for yourself. This is probably a fault.

Ambiguity

Ambiguity is a marvelous tool. Used sparingly it can liven up our work and give our viewers more challenges and rewards. Ambiguity means being open to more than one interpretation.

I recently watched a video on Creative Live by Renee Robyn. She is a conceptual artist who constructs images as composites of many layers. Some of her work leads to various interpretations. I was interested that she said about one that she asked many people what it meant to them and every one had a different interpretation. And none matched what she had in mind. That is ambiguity.

Ambiguity introduces the option of different interpretation. Of course, that is always possible with any image, but more ambiguity makes it more possible.

Leave questions unanswered

As I get older I find my work asking more questions than answering them. Maybe I realize I know less as I age.

I cynically view that a lot of young people come out of art training thinking they now think deep thoughts and have to raise great questions for their viewers. Later, whether they realize it or not, most of them settle down some and their work says “this is what I see”. Even later, like me, they might come around to saying “these are things I still don’t understand, but I see them different and less rigidly now”.

Intentionally introducing more ambiguity is one way to move away from imposing my own interpretation on a scene. By leaving more room for the viewer to create their own story it becomes more of a conversation.

Say more

It is quite possible to say more by saying less. This is one of the beauties of poetry. Great poetry may introduce deep truths in a few words, but in a way that keeps the reader thinking about it on and off for years.

I have no images where I claim such insight or depth. But I do think that by leaving more for the viewer to fill in from their own experience and viewpoint, there can be more interest.

Giving viewers the clear answer to things can come across like a boring lecture. It may be good information, but it doesn’t necessarily engage you. I have this problem with a lot of landscape images I see (and take). It’s a landscape. Beautiful place, great time of year, I’d like to go there, but there’s nothing else. Nothing left for me to figure out or question.

It seems much more rewarding to hint that there is more depth there to be discovered. To give the viewer a chance to participate, to become a co-creator.

Today’s image

This image is a little ambiguous. I’ll let you figure out what it actually is. I left a couple of strong hints, but feel free to make up your own interpretation, your own story.

Traveling

An unexpected travel shot. It came from taking the time to stop and watch and wait.

I have been traveling more than usual this year. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I shoot and why. Perhaps it will trigger a response in you.

This is not a typical travel photography article. You won’t find the expected rules and checklists and how-to advice.

How I travel

Travel for me is a rather solitary activity. Being an introvert, I work best alone. Having people around who want to talk about what I am doing and “help” me find pictures is almost always a negative. My wife is occasionally along on these trips, but she has learned to get out of the way and leave me alone when I am shooting. Not always, but that is the norm. I don’t want to make it sound like I push her away, it is just that she knows me enough to recognize when I am in a zone and don’t want to talk.

When I am traveling with an option of doing photography I prefer to drive or be on foot in a large city. In either case I preserve the freedom of exploring, setting my own path, managing my time. I strongly prefer to explore out of the way, seldom seen sights, even if it means missing the main tourist attractions. Actually, especially if it means missing them.

As you can tell, if I have to take a tour, especially in a bus, I feel handcuffed, in prison, doomed to follow someone else’s agenda. I may see some interesting things, but there is seldom the chance to explore something as i would like.

What am I seeking

As I learn more about myself, I realize I can never restrict myself to certain subjects. I’m afraid I will never be that guy who is known for mountain landscapes, or still lives, or seascapes. I recognize that this is a disadvantage from the sense of marketing and branding. Too bad.

Of course there are certain subjects I am naturally drawn to. I like particular kinds of landscapes. The area that might be termed wabi sabe – simply things that age and weather with character – appeals to me. It is almost a given a given that I would check these things out. A joke with my wife and some close friends is that, if we see an old rusty truck, I will want to stop and photograph it. Like most humor, it is based in truth.

But in a more general sense, I have learned that what draws me is the chance to exercise my creativity. When I see an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective or a creative treatment to a subject, I go for it. It does not matter if it is an obscure something on a back road that nobody cares about. If I can visualize it fresh and make an interesting image, that is what I want.

This is one reason I seldom hang out at the iconic viewpoints that everybody seeks. I have no interest in shooting the same image that thousands of other photographers have made. Yes, I may shoot it for my memory, but I would seldom publish a photo like that.

How I approach subjects

This is pretty nebulous. I do not have a distinct process I have written down. I’m just trying to reconstruct my thought processes.

Basically I have an imaginary dialog with the subject. “Who are you?” “What is your story?” “How would you like to be seen?” I don’t really express these things verbally or even consciously. But this is a process I think I go through.

In effect, I am making a portrait of the subject. In a good portrait, the photographer tries to get to know the subject enough to recognize the key characteristics and the underlying personality of the person. This is what I try to do, even if I am shooting an old truck.

It sounds kind of silly to write it down, but it is how I work.

Environment

There are some powerful environmental conditions I have control of that have a strong influence on the outcome and productivity of my shooting. I have learned over time to manage these things.

A powerful one is to get off the freeway. I have seldom made an interesting image alongside a freeway. Cruising down that wide road at 75 mi/hr or more tunnel vision takes over. My focus is the road ahead and cars around me. The most wonderful scene I have ever imagined could be right there next to the road and, if I noticed it at all, I would probably convince myself it was not worth pulling off and falling behind in the traffic stream.

Another is sound. I find that listening to the radio gives a focus that distracts me from creative viewing. My car radio is often off all day. If I am driving at night I may turn it on to help keep me alert, but that is the only time.

Having mild ADHD tendencies, I find I cannot ignore words, either when someone is speaking or in music. When that stimulus is occupying me I tend to ignore a lot of things going on outside. And it is easy to get in a groove and be reluctant to stop to check out possible subjects.

And having a fixed agenda works against my creativity. If it is the middle of the afternoon and I know I have 250 miles to go before I stop, it becomes too easy to judge that this thing I just saw is not worthy of stopping and putting me behind schedule. Agendas can’t always be avoided, but I try.

Gear

Photographers tend to be obsessed with gear and the technical side of the art. Who doesn’t like a great camera and a selection of excellent lenses?

Sorry to disappoint, but I find I become less interested in that with time. The key thing is what you see and what you can do, not your gear. I seem to take less gear each outing.

On a 1 week road trip I just returned from, I took one body and I only shot with 1 lens – a 24-120 f/4. I had a couple of excellent lenses with me, but never attached them. The lens I used is surprisingly good and covers the range I normally shoot in. I like to become comfortable and familiar with what I am using so that once I have visualized what I want, I just pick up the camera and it is a quick and automatic process to capture my vision.

Actually the bulkiest equipment I brought was 2 tripods and a monopod. And I didn’t use 1 of the tripods. Next time I will probably not bring it or the other lenses I had with me.

Just me

I readily say these characteristics are peculiar to me. And I am peculiar. I am in no way suggesting you should do things this way.

Over time I have learned what works for me and what I did that increased the amount of images I like. Being an introvert makes it easier for me to reflect on things like this. I like to figure things out. You need to figure out what works for you and maximize it.

We each have our own unique characteristics and strengths and weaknesses. Learning who we are and what works for us is a big step toward improving our work. And being happier along the way.