It Is What It Is

A story and a lot of unanswered questions

It is what it is. This is actually an expression I hate, but I’m used to it because some of my kids occasionally use it. In one sense, what I photograph is what it is.

My methods

I photograph outdoors in natural light. The subjects I shoot are “found” things. Things I encounter on my way and I shoot them as I find them. That is, I do not stages shots. I will very seldom move anything or do any “gardening” to remove distractions or competing elements.

This is the method that appeals to me. There is a kind of honesty or transparency about it that feels right.

One of the things I am indirectly pointing out in it is that most of us go through our daily life with blinders on. We tend to be oblivious to most things we encounter unless they are what we are looking for or they seem a threat.

What I want to do is take these found subjects and elevate them in a way that makes them interesting and to gently say, “see what you missed by not being mindful”.

Explore

To accomplish this, I have to be an explorer. I forage for images rather than planning them. And it requires heightened senses. I have to be outside my head and paying attention to things around me. Some may say I’m out of my head, but I will call it outside my head. I have to quiet the inner critic and be constantly scanning around me for interesting things.

It is a learned skill that I have practiced for quite a while. While I am far from perfect, I feel like I am getting better at it.

It has become a joy to me. I look forward to these explores. Most often I am just wandering in the vicinity of my studio. Familiar and well worn paths. It constantly surprises me that I can discover new and interesting things in such familiar territory. Some days it is easier than others. But more often than not I find something new or I see something differently. Even if I don’t come back with any images, I have enjoyed getting out and being in tune with what is around me.

Go out empty

One of my inspirations is Jay Maisel. I have mentioned him many times. Jay is a famous photographer living in New York City – now Brooklyn. One of the many things he is famous for is just going out rambling every day on the streets close to home.

He is so good at spotting interesting scenes that it is almost depressing. I would hate him if he weren’t so phenomenal. 🙂

Jay describes what he is doing as “going out empty”. He wants to go out as unprepared as possible so he can get filled up with what the world has to offer. The point he makes frequently is that if he has a certain thing in mind to shoot, that is a mental block. He might find that, but would probably miss everything else that’s on offer.

Through lots of practice I have determined this style works well for me, too.

Make something out of it

So I explore. I wander. I’m searching for things that catch my interest. And when I find them, I don’t rearrange them or clean them up, except maybe for a stray blade of grass or a piece of trash.

Therefore, the challenge is to make something out of what is there. Position, crop, lens choice – these all factor in to making the image. Someone has said the picture is already there, we just have to crop it. There is truth to that. The excellent instructor Ben Willmore once said “What elements are adding to the image? What elements are detracting? How do I remove more of the detractions and add more of the good?” That is a good description of the game: try to remove enough of the bad and include enough of the good.

It is what it is – work with it

It is often stated that everything has been shot. What matters now is our personal treatment of it. Can we use our unique vision to see the subject in a new and interesting way?

I choose to work with things that interest me as I find them. It is what it is. How can I make it the best it can be? It can be a challenge, but the reality is there is a lot more interest in the world around us than we usually notice.

It is a joy to me when someone exclaims over one of my images and I can think – or say out loud – that is right where you go by every day and you’ve never noticed it.

A final quote from Jay Maisel: I want people to see what I see. It’s all out there. It’s a joy to look at.

Yes, it is what it is, but it can be more.

This process works for me. It fits me and there are benefits. I recommend you experiment with it. It might need several outings to become comfortable. You might discover a new world around you.

Let me know your experience!

Today’s image

OK, I didn’t find this around my studio. But thousands of people passed by this daily and I bet few if any ever glanced at the scene closely enough to take notice of it. It was clearly visible from a main highway. There seems to be a story and a lot of unanswered questions wrapped up in a single frame.

I was driving and I turned around and came back to it. I’m glad I took the time. It is a good memory for me.

The scene is gone now. But that is a topic for another day.

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.

The Subject Isn’t the Subject

French street scene at night. The comp[osition carries it.

Huh? Wrap your self around that for a minute. When we shoot images, we almost always have a distinct subject. What sense does it make to say the subject isn’t the subject?

Inspired by a quote

This article was inspired by an article by Ian Plant in Nature Photography Network, Feb 8, 2023. In part, he said:

But the single most difficult, most counterintuitive aspect of photography, the one thing that most photographers have a tough time wrapping their heads around, is this: your subject is not your subject. Instead, your subject is just part of the overall visual design. The subject might arguably be the primary element of the design, perhaps the most important part, but it is only a part, nonetheless. To make truly exceptional photographs, you need to include more than just your subject; you also need to include other visual elements that work together with your subject, getting the viewer engaged with the story you are telling with your image.

This requires some careful thought. Many of us tend to be fixated on finding the “right” subject and filling the frame with it. Ian is suggesting that is a limiting view.

What else is there besides the subject?

But if you have a good subject, and if you light it and have adequate depth of field, and you expose it right, doesn’t that make the picture? He says probably not, and I tend to agree with him.

A successful picture is a complex balance of many, often competing, dimensions. Yes, a subject is usually important, but there is the overall visual design, the composition, the feeling, the processing, even the context.

Presenting a badly designed image of a great subject usually doesn’t work well. Maybe in a photojournalism context, if the subject is truly unique it would be considered a strong image. But as a normal visual image, no.

It’s that balance thing. All the parts have to be strong.

It all works together

A well composed image of nothing particular probably doesn’t work. Neither does a not well composed picture with a good subject. We’ve probably all experienced both.

Another statement from Ian Plant in that article is:

Once you learn to stop thinking of your subject as your subject, you instead start seeing your subject as an abstract compositional element, which is a necessary step for making compelling photos. You start to see your subject in terms of its shape, color, and luminosity value. Seeing shapes and learning how to arrange them effectively within the picture frame is of critical importance to successful composition.

So the subject is part of what you build a compelling image around. Everything else you have learned about composition have to be thought through. You know, the considerations of framing and leading lines and balance and contrast and emphasis and patterns and … it goes on. You can find a million videos on the internet with someone ready to give you the secrets of composition.

Viewer perception

Why doesn’t an interesting subject carry a picture by itself? For you, it might. You were there. The image invokes memories of the experience, or the subject is important to you. Not so for the viewer.

To the user, it is a picture. You have to give him a reason to keep looking at it. People are so inundated with imagery that they are going to move on in about 1/2 second unless you can grab them.

So, let’s say there is a picture you like of a heron. It was your first trip to Sanibel Island in Florida and you shot lots of bird pictures. It is significant to you. But put yourself in the place of your viewer. They see lots of heron pictures. What does this one have to offer to make them pause on it?

Is it a significant moment with the bird poised to catch a fish? Is the bird in an interesting pose? Does the lighting enhance the feeling? Have you brought something of the environment where the bird lives that is of interest? Does this tell an interesting story about the bird? A good image is more than just an interesting subject.

Your mileage may vary

Seems funny how most of my articles contain a disclaimer like “your mileage may vary”. Art is intensely subjective. There are no hard rules. There are only patterns that have been identified over time that seems to strongly influence people’s perceptions.

Ian is describing landscape photography. “Rules” may well be different for portraiture or photojournalism or other things. The fine art I do is a lot like landscapes. Sometimes it is straight landscapes. So his thoughts struck me as significant. As always, you do your own art according to what makes sense for you. Never let any so called authority tell you you can’t.

But listen to opinions of people who have a track record of doing good work. Don’t necessarily follow them, but listen, try it on, see if it fits before rejecting their advice.

Today’s image

This is a quick shot of a street scene in Paris. It is not a carefully planned set up shot. I was out for dinner with family when this grabbed me.

Quick or not, it passed the test of “I’ll think of a reason later“. The more I worked with this the more it went up in my estimation.

Why? It is a pretty standard tourist shot of Paris streets. Look at the things that help make it more. The curve of the street and sidewalk draws us into the scene, as does the diagonal line of light and color., as do the people walking into the scene on the right. The bicycles give movement and make it more alive. The light and color on the building draw us to the side of the street that has most of the interest. As you look along the lighted street, the people in the cafes each seem to have their own story and interest. They all seem to be enjoying the evening out and that is pleasant and inviting. The receding perspective of the buildings on the left also direct and guide us along the street and through the scene.

Conclusion

To me, there is a lot of interest to explore and reasons to keep moving around the image looking at things. A simple shot of a street at night blossomed into an interesting picture. It moved beyond a street scene and became a study of living in Paris.

Most all of that was instinctual, not planned. A (metaphorical) bell went off alerting me there was something here. I got in position and framed the shot quickly. I really didn’t want to hold up my group, and I didn’t.

It’s a fairly standard and common subject. Design improved it to something more special. Instinct helped me craft the interest. What do you think? Is it interesting? Am I kidding myself?

I’ll Think of a Reason Later

An un-pre-visualized shot taken from a moving boat on the Seine River.

I get tired of hearing all the pronouncements from leading photographers about how all our shots should be carefully planned and pre-visualized. While this is good advice sometimes, it is not always true. At least, not for me. I have come to see some of my best work as happening when “I’ll think of a reason later”.

Source

I got the title from an old country & western song by Lee Ann Womack, lyrics by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. Great lyrics, but the song has nothing to do with photography or any art. But when I heard the title, it seemed to perfectly fit what I often experience. So I decided to “repurpose” it.

You know how you sometimes hear something that sparks other ideas or seems to crystalize some ill-formed thoughts that have been gnawing at you? This was that for me. I love the image it brings to my imagination.

Planning

It is part of the accepted religion of many photographers that you never shoot a picture without a well thought out plan. Even to a firm visualization of what the final product should be. Being a matter of faith, it is unquestioned and can’t be reasoned. But I will question it. There is an old quote that says “sacred cows make the best burgers”.

Is there a time for careful planning? Yes. Of course. Otherwise the whole controversy would be foolish.

When is planning important? First, on any commercial shoot, where a certain result must be obtained, on schedule and on budget. You will not work in the industry if you can’t deliver repeatable and acceptable results to your client. Sure, you must also have a recognized style to flavor your work, but that is secondary to the results the client wants.

Second, if you are doing some type of conceptual photography, where you have to synthesize the result from materials you shoot specially for it. It all has to be coordinated so the right materials are available for constructing the final image. The parts must be consistent in lighting, focal length, position, color, etc. Most of all, they have to be complete. You don’t want to start bringing your product together and find that a key piece is missing. This process takes good planning and visualization.

A third possible one is a once in a lifetime trip to an exotic location. It would be reasonable to scout the location, plan for lighting, weather conditions, etc. I say maybe, because I probably wouldn’t do it. I might want to have some idea of what to expect, but I would be more energized by abandoning preconceived notions and reacting to what I find.

Spontaneity

What’s missing in this very disciplined notion of planning? To me, it is spontaneity, happy accident, feelings, reactions. These are the things I thrive on. These things make my work more alive and vibrant.

The things I find, unanticipated, can captivate me. When something excites me and energizes me, I find I am generally happier with the results. The engagement is memorable and meaningful. I am drawn to the subject or the scene. The feelings I have seem to come through in my images. Dare I say it, there is love there.

Can a planned, rehearsed shot engage me? Yes, sometimes I like to really get deep into whatever I do. But that is accidental. Usually I find in those situations that my engagement has to be secondary to the planned event. For me, I don’t want it to be secondary.

I enjoy the discipline of shooting for a project. But even when I have a certain theme in mind, I do not have a fixed plan for what I will shoot. I may hypothesize what some of the images in the project might look like, but that is only a guide to spark my imagination.

I would much rather find joy in something no one else has noticed. Something that, at just that moment, is interesting, even exciting. Tomorrow it may look like junk, but right now it is something else. This is more interesting to me than getting yet another beautiful shot of an iconic scene.

I’ll think of a reason later

So, “I’ll think of a reason later” means to me that I will follow my instincts, my interest at the moment. Later, when I am working on the image on my computer, I will see if I can think of the reason it called to me. Usualy there are some good reasons.

I will be lead by my heart. Planning can be useful, but I will not be a slave to it. I have no problem abandoning a plan to shoot something more interesting.I am a fine art photographer, not a commercial shooter. This means I will follow my instincts, shoot what I like and what I am drawn to at the moment.

I will be the first to admit that this does not always lead to the best possible results. Sometimes I follow my instincts down a rat hole to a dead end. That’s OK. Better than OK. It is wonderful. It is better to me to try and fail and sometimes achieve something special than to rise to nothing more than mediocrity.

So I am amazed sometimes working on these spontaneous images on my computer, to see things I was not conscious of at the time I shot it. I see shapes and forms, color harmony, framing, patterns, and lines that work to make an interesting image. These were mostly subconscious at the time I was shooting.

I seem to be able to use all my years of training instinctively. Was I pre-visualizing my images? Probably, but it wasn’t conscious. I was not aware of it in the moment I was shooting. The measure for me is: was I excited at the time? This is I’ll Think of a Reason Later.

What works for you

I’m reacting here to intense evangelism I see from some so called authorities. The reality is, there is no “one way”. At best, they can tell you what works successfully for them. Sometimes they just want to evangelize you to their point of view.

An artist’s working style and subject matter is intensely personal. What works for one will completely trip up and block another. Do what works for you without thinking you have to follow a plan some famous photographer told you.

I don’t mean to ignore everybody. Listen, try their ideas out. Experiment. But ultimately reject what doesn’t work for you.

Today’s image

This image was taken going down the Seine River in Paris. I glanced up and instantly recognized a scene of interest to me and snapped it. It was not pre-visualized, and I was not consciously searching for a situation like this.

Sometimes happy accidents happen. I plan on it. That is, I find if I am receptive and looking around with interest, they happen. Frequently.