A camera records what it is pointed at. But is that all we do? Shouldn’t we be seeing something no one else sees? This is what I call seeing the invisible.
Not just recording
I have written before about the camera as a recording device. That is the nature of its design and that is what the vast majority of people do when taking pictures. The big advantage of a camera is that it immediately records what is sees. Its disadvantage is that it records what it sees.
Not to get Zen on us, but yes, it is an advantage and a disadvantage. I’m not good at drawing and I am fairly impatient. The camera is a near perfect tool for me in my creative process. But on the other hand, what value have I added if I just show you exactly what was there? True, maybe it saved you a trip there. But is it really art?
I hope to do more than show what you would have seen for yourself in the same place.
I can take a picture or I can make a picture. To me, the difference is the thought and perception and interpretation that goes into it.
If I am driving along and I think “Oh… Pretty” and stop and step out and shoot a picture, it may be beautiful. Many people may like it. I will do this almost every time I see a pretty scene. But usually I won’t show them to you.
I want to feel like I have gotten deeper into the scene. Maybe it is to take a few minutes to move around to find a better vantage point. Maybe it is to work through various compositions to find a better way to see it. Perhaps it is to zoom in to a part of the whole or go wider to emphasize the space. Or even to note to myself that this should be black & white.
Whatever it takes, I hope to make something special and different out of the scene. To put my particular stamp on it to bring you something new.
One of my tests is my wife’s shots. She shoots everything with her phone. After years of being with me and picking up some hints, she is good. But she basically just shoots to post selfies and pretty pictures to Facebook. My test is that if my picture looks like hers, maybe I haven’t really created something yet. Maybe I haven’t found the key to distinguish this from the conventional shot. It is a pretty high bar.
I’ve taken a picture but I haven’t really “made” a picture. I haven’t discovered the invisible something that is there.
Project our feelings
It really is about the artist’s emotional response to the scene. I felt something. What was it? Have I captured it? Can I articulate what I am responding to?
Tony Hewitt is a great photographer in Australia. He has been known to write poems about images he likes. I am not suggesting we have to do that, although I think poetry is one of the highest art forms we can aspire to. But we can and should ask our self questions. And force our self to answer them honestly. Even if we just keep asking “Why?” over and over. Probably about 3 layers of that will peal away our complacency and help us to discover what it was that appealed to us in the scene.
Now that we understand what drew us, we can work the scene. Refine and elaborate on our initial view until we really make something.
For myself, I usually find that it was a feeling or emotion that triggered the process. I may not have been able to put a name to it immediately, but there was something: joy or disgust or wonder or excitement or just the way things looked together. Something drew me to the scene. By understanding what it was I can better develop the shot into something that may have the ability to stir the same emotion in you.
More than a rock
It is what it is, but it can mean more. That is a lot of the magic, isn’t it? How can we have a picture of something we recognize, but it seems to have some added significance? Edward Weston famously posed the paradox as
This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.
It is a photograph of a rock. But can it be more than just a photograph of a rock? If we take a moment to reflect on it, is there a deeper layer to it? Can we get a glimpse of something the photographer saw on a deeper level?
Guy Tal even wrote an entire book on the theme: More Than a Rock: Essays on Art, Creativity, Photography, Nature, and Life. It is a worthwhile read and he brings up good points.
I hate to end on a down note, but I think we will fail more often than succeed. Our intent is not clear to the viewer. They do not see the depths we wanted to show them.
There is a notion of equivalence, meaning the process of transferring our intent to someone else. The basic takeaway is: it’s hard. I know that even in Guy Tal’s good book, a lot of the pictures I look at leave me flat. I don’t see what he obviously saw. To use Weston’s metaphor, it’s just a rock to me. I have a different experience base and different values. Meanings and emotions do not transfer easily in the best of circumstances.
So should we give up and not try? Impossible. We’re artists. We have to try. That’s what we do. When it works, it is magical. Sometimes, we can really help someone see things that were invisible to them before. In that, we can share our joy and wonder. That makes it all worthwhile.