In the last post, I posed the question "If you accept that technical information and a photographers feelings offer little useful information, how can viewing images help you become a better photographer?" The short answer is... it can't.
Let me explain. For information to have any validity, you must have something to base the information on. We don't live in a vacuum, and how we view the world determines what we will accept in that world. The old cliche "I may not know much about art, but I know what I like" only means you are limiting your appreciation to what you know and missing the potential benefits of expanding your photographic range. Viewing a photograph with such limitations will also limit what you can learn from viewing the photograph in the first place.
Valid information is not gained just by viewing an image, nor by just studying the jargon and mechanics of photography. These may be useful elements, but are still only part of the answer. Unfortunately, it is as far as many people get, and they miss the rich experiences they could have cultivated if they had gone just a little farther.
Case in point... when I was first dragged to museums in my youth, I was bored out of my mind and couldn't wait to get out of there. I had no knowledge of the history of the artist or their times, I had no background understanding of the meaning conveyed by a style or medium of art, and I couldn't appreciate the work involved in the creation of the pieces on display. In essence, I had nothing to base the museum and art experience on. I was like a rocket with fuel but no guidance system, with energy to understand what I already knew but no guidance to appreciate that which I did not.
Without at least some understanding of what we are looking at, we run the risk of missing the meaning altogether. The same can be said for studying camera specs and technical information. If this is all you focus on while viewing a photograph, you are a guidance system, full of knowledge, but with no rocket to take you anywhere, and you come away with nothing truly meaningful. The technical aspects may be needed, but they didn't create the image. The image the photographer wanted to create determined the technical needs, not the other way around.
Ultimately, creating a photograph requires making choices, and these choices come from two places... knowledge and experience.
As I said in the previous post, I make choices before I even leave the house, which determines what direction I will follow in my photographic journey. Those choices determine what subject matter I tend to photograph. Yes, you could say a portrait photographer has to make choices based on what is needed to create a portrait, but I would say that choice was made when they chose portraiture as their career, long before the subject was chosen. To be successful, they needed to learn all there was to learn about portraiture, the equipment used, posing and lighting, and so on. In other words, they had to gain knowledge in order to begin creating portraits.
It is important to learn the mechanics of photography, and by all means do so. Look up the specs of the camera you are using, read about the different aspect ratios, the sensor sizes, the lenses in a system and how their apertures affect an image. But don't stop there. If you want to understand the visual effects your camera and lens combination will give you, you need to go out and actually take photographs with your own equipment. Understanding the mechanics is all fine and good, but experience with those mechanics will bring your photography to the next level.
Deep understanding of the mechanics of photography allows you to focus on the creation of an image. Once you start capturing images, however successful or failed the attempts may be, you have gained the experience needed to understand more than just the mechanics behind a photograph. In turn, these experiences help you shape your choices when creating images, which leads you to more experiences and greater understanding of photography as a whole.
With this level of understanding, you can come away with an appreciation of all aspects of a photograph. When viewing another photographers image, you can now gain insights to your own creative process, be it mechanical aspects or experiences you communicate through your photographs. You grow and become better at your craft and in the creation of images that convey significant, meaningful communication.
Have you ever noticed photographers seem to have this need to give you information on their photographic creations? You know… things like where the shot was taken, what time of day it was, the camera settings used or even how they were "feeling" at the time.
Is it important for the viewer to know what aperture I used, what time of day it was or mood I was in? Last time I checked, Van Gough didn't list the different shades of blue he used creating 'Starry Night'; I'm not quite sure how Grant Wood felt when he painted 'American Gothic' (but those two sure do look depressed!); and I'm still in the dark as to what brand of chisel Michelangelo used when sculpting 'David'!
It seems that, unlike other artists, photographers are overly preoccupied with including technical information of their magic moment… which in turn dilutes the magic they worked so hard to capture. A successful image communicates without the need for technical jargon, so why the need to include it in descriptive text after the fact? What significance is there to knowing a photograph was captured at a setting of ISO 100 at 1/250th of a second at f/ 5.6 using a 35mm lens? None of this information matters.
Now you might say that’s not true. Technical information imparts knowledge concerning the image making process. Knowing how the photographer felt allows you to experience what they felt when they took the shot, eventually leading to "better" photographs. But I would offer a different perspective. Let’s go through this step by step.
ISO / Aperture / Shutter Speed
The great triad of exposure would seemingly be something important to know. The thing is, the sensor on my camera is adjusted to ISO 200 for optimum results and I don't know what another cameras optimum ISO may be, so including this information only tells me a different ISO was used, not if it was optimum for the camera or if it was purposefully changed for effect. It may be image quality was sacrificed in order to hold the camera steady without a tripod. Maybe the photographer just liked the effect with a chosen ISO. I have no way of knowing the reason behind the choice. And that is the operative word... reason. Each choice is made for a reason. How am I to know if the photographer just happened to have the camera set where they needed it or if it was a conscious choice? Is that an important criteria for the image I'm looking at? Will it affect decisions made later? Again... no way of knowing, hence, the information which is seemingly important, is actually of little use.
Since I wasn't there when the image was captured, the shutter speed and aperture information could indicate the kind of day it was or the type of light falling on the subject... or it might not. Was the image under or overexposed? The photographer could have intentionally overexposed the shot and then manipulated the image in post-production. The aperture information may tell me they used a wide aperture and got shallow depth of field, but depth of field is also affected by sensor size, how far away you are from the subject and how far away distant objects are from that same subject. Without that information, I don't have much to go on, and I've never seen sensor size, relative distances or exact camera position discussed with any detail on any photograph I have ever seen… not once. At best, I might find the subject was "shot from above", but how far above? A foot? A mile? Does it really matter?
This sounds like good information, doesn’t it? Knowing when to use the right focal length lens for a given situation can help me take better images. But as I mentioned before, I don’t know the size of the camera sensor, and that determines if a lens is wide, normal or long for that camera. A full frame camera would find 35mm slightly wide, but an APS-C would consider that a lens that captures a normal angle of view. Looking at the image tells me if the scene seems distorted by a wider than normal view or compressed from the effects of a longer lens. What exact lens was used is unimportant. The lens choice is determined by the distance from a subject and what the photographer wants to capture. In some instances it is determined by what lens the photographer has at the time! The lens I choose to have with me will quite often be the determining factor on what kind of images I capture. If all I have is a wide angle lens, I tend to avoid portraits and instead capture landscapes.
That last statement brings up a good point... the equipment I carry with me limits the choices I make in the field. If I carry every possible combination of lens, flash, tripod, filter, camera body and anything else I might possibly need in the field, I'm going to be one tired grumpy photographer before the day is through. Therefore, I don't carry much with me when I photograph because I wouldn't last long if I did. I make choices before I even leave the house, which determines what direction I will follow in my photographic journey.
I most often carry one camera with a zoom lens, a polarizing filter, rarely if ever have a tripod or flash, and I like to shoot during the day. This means I have already limited my images to one sensor size, a specific optimal ISO, a set of angles and aperture combinations determined by the zoom range of the lens, a limit on useful shutter speeds (since I most often will be hand holding my camera), and the use of daylight over artificial light. I do this because I know what I like to photograph, the subjects I tend to capture, the ranges and distances I prefer to shoot in, and the knowledge that I will get tired and want to take a break during shooting. That's just me and has nothing whatsoever to do with what you might do or how you might feel. All of these decisions are made because of who I am and how I perceive the world and the process of image making. You are not me, so knowing how I feel doesn't enter into the equation at all. If you like to carry a lot of equipment and have the stamina to do so, you won't be getting grumpy, so what does it matter if I do? I don't like the cold, so when I shoot in winter, this affects my mood. You may love the cold, so who cares if I don't? If I don't feel well one day but take this amazing photograph, are you going to wait until you don't feel well before you go out and shoot? I would certainly hope not!
If you accept that technical information and a photographers feelings offer little useful information, how can viewing images help you become a better photographer? I'll try to answer that question in the next post.
I was asked recently why I have both black and white and color images in my portfolio. Finding it a strange question, I asked what they meant. Their thinking was there were “black and white” photographers (somehow equated to “old school”) and color photographers (somehow associated with “digital photography”), and ne’er the twain shall meet. This view got me thinking about what non-photographers think photography is and why I choose to reproduce some images in black and white, others in color, and a few in both.
The expression of artistic vision has always been dependent on the materials used to create that vision, whether it be paint, clay, textiles, movement, voice, or in the case of photography, the recording of light. These materials limit the form of communication to what is possible with the material used. It influences the arrangement of the various aspects the art form can take. These limitations influence the perception a viewer has regarding the art itself.
Some may think the perception of the viewer is inconsequential, for the artist is the one communicating, but I strongly disagree. Communication cannot happen without a transmitter and a receiver. In most cases, the receivers, the viewers of art, are not artists themselves. Their interpretation is what will most probably be communicated now and in the future, so their view is relevant. The question of “why have both black and white and color images” isn't about men and why I create these images. It's about the viewer, and their interpretations of what photography is.
So why do I share both, and what does that mean? For those that have read this blog, you know at one time I created black and white images exclusively. I believed (wrongly) that black and white was somehow “art”, while color was “commercial”, and not worth my time. Oh, the hubris of young age!
As through a glass darkly, photography is always an interpretation of the reality around us. Even those images that are so abstract as to be totally disconnected from reality, are, in essence, nothing but images of real things, even if those things are light and shadow. Unlike paint, which is placed on a blank canvas to create an image from nothing, photography is constrained by the reality that it interprets. This aspect, so unique to photography, leads to the mistaken belief that photography is “real”, while other art forms are not.
Photography is, for the most part, an interpretation of the real world based on capturing the light and shadow our eyes interpret as reality. In my view, this is what makes photography very different from other art forms. We are always capturing, in real time, what is happening around us. And yet, if that is all we did as photographers, everything would look like a drivers license headshot. That is clearly not the case, so what’s happening?
Photography uses the same elements other media uses to communicate, namely, line, shape, form, texture, color. Each artist interprets the world using these elements in different combinations, creating a piece that communicates some aspect of the world. When we choose to interpret a reality in color or black and white, we are emphasizing different elements in varying degrees. One image may be strongest in color, with less emphasis on the other elements, while another’s strength is its texture or form more than its color.
Which is best? Neither. The color image is strong because of its color. The black and white image is strong because of its use of line, shape, form and texture. When I choose color over black and white, I am purposefully emphasizing that aspect of the image that is strongest, and consequently, creating an interpretation of reality that emphasizes color. That is why some images are best interpreted one way over another, either in color or black and white. And yet, there are a few images which stand upon the strengths of both interpretations. Their meaning changes because of these aspects, but the image itself stays strong and the message it communicates can be a powerful one.
Color photography is no more “digital” or “commercial” than black and white photography is “old school” or “art”. They are both aspects of a medium used to interpret the world in different ways. Both have strengths and weaknesses unique to each other, and it's these strength and weaknesses that, if put to good use, create images that a viewer can appreciate and communicate with.
Saw a post on social media the other day about film and digital photography. It posed a question that I think about often. Essentially, it asked if film photography made you a better photographer. The basic idea was film made you slow down because you had a limited number of shots per roll and it took a lot of time to develop and then print images, which in turn made you think and become a stronger photographer.
At first, this seemed reasonable to me. I mean, I had many students who really had to stop and think when they used film, and thinking is good, right? So, case closed. Film is better. End of discussion. Or is it?
Back in the days when film was photography and digital was some weird thing they spent millions on to make really bad special effects, I shot 36 exposure 35mm film. As time progressed, I moved to 12 exposure medium format, and yes, this slowed me down and made me really think. The film was more expensive and I got fewer shots per roll, so it stood to reason I had to make every shot count. After a time, I realized I got one really good shot per roll (that means 1 in 36 when I shot 35mm and 1 in 12 when I moved to medium format). With less shots on a roll, I had to slow down and really experience the moment. I had to be better at what I did because I couldn’t afford to be sloppy.
So, case closed. Film is better. End of discussion. Or is it?
When I was first learning to create images, I had no idea what I was doing. I had to gain experience, and film made me work at it, so it was a great learning experience. I couldn't be sloppy and really had to focus on image making. But to be honest, it also was very limiting. I was constantly worried that my images would be ruined in processing. I didn't want to experiment with different angles and different lighting conditions because I only had so much money I could spend on film and chemistry. I became stingy with my image making, and that lead to stagnation and frustration. When digital came around, I was free to shoot a thousand shots, changing angles, spending time with one subject, experimenting with all kinds of lighting conditions.
So, case closed. Digital is better. End of discussion. Or is it?
Digital meant I never had to worry about losing a shot or running out of exposures, But that also made me sloppy. I new I could easily delete any image, I could snap away and get something usable, and my images suffered accordingly. I became a vacation snap shot shooter... less interested in making a statement and more interested in just recording whatever was in front of me. The reality was, I wasn't using digital to its full potential. I had to relearn the art of photography using new tools that changed the way I created images. And that was my failing, not the failing of digital imaging.
With digital, I can now afford to take every angle of view, change lenses, experiment with ISO, shutter, and aperture, all without feeling limited. But I have to actually do this, not just shoot away in hopes that something will happen. That's the biggest issue I have with digital photography. It's very ease of use makes it too easy to stop caring about creating images. Those of us who learned with film must relearn image making when turning to digital. It's not the same thing.
So, case closed. Digital is better. I mean, film is better. No wait, something is better, isn't it?
Not really. Film is film and digital is digital. Both can be magnificent in their own right, but both have their limitations too. I can get students to really think with film, but it takes up so much time. On the other hand, I keep having to get students back on track with digital, but the potential is there to experiment without fear. When you first learn photography, you are sloppy, wanting to take images right away and see what you have. You don't have the experience to realize the pitfalls of being sloppy, so digital photography can become a hindrance. You need to learn control, and film gives you that, but it also limits your experimentation and creativity, the very thing digital image making provides.
If you can’t take control of the experience, you’re like a rocket with no guidance system — all power but no direction. Film makes you slow down, and slowing down gives you a great guidance system, but, at least for me, I feel I'm missing out somehow. I just can't do everything I want to try to do. Digital gives me the power to experiment and helps me feel like I'm not missing a great shot somewhere, but it doesn't provide the best guidance system when doing so. I need to make that happen.
In the end, you need experience. Experience is what guides us to be better photographers... not film, not digital, not cameras or lenses or darkrooms or software or whatever else we come across. With experience, we create our guidance system, ant that is what improves our photography.
So, film is better and digital is better... but experience is best. Case closed.
Last time I wrote about the diversity of our land and the opportunities it brought to photograph cultures different from our own. I ended with a thought about missing out on the experience because we focus too much on taking photographs rather than the experience itself. And I admit... this can happen.
What we focus on influences our perception of the experiences we have when we travel. Long ago, my father went on a trip to Europe. He dutifully carried his video camera around and recorded events on the trip. When back home, we watched what he had recorded, and he proudly stated that he had "sacrificed" seeing what he recorded so he could get "great images" and share them. In essence, he traveled half way across the world and spent who knows how many thousands of dollars, to experience everything through a viewfinder. He could have just rented a video and watched it from home... It would have had better production values.
Although this example may be an extreme case, we nevertheless do run the risk of missing out on something if we focus solely on our photography and not what is going on around us. I would suggest it is not the taking of photos that makes us miss an experience... it is our preconceived notion on what the experience has to be which determines how we are affected by that experience. To put it another way, our concept of what we are "supposed" to experience determines what we experience and how we react to it.
If we travel and expect four star hotels, pristine beaches, and smiling foreign faces, then we have already decided what the travel, and the experience, has to be about. We create an artificial landscape, one manufactured in our minds, not in reality. And there isn't anything inherently wrong with that... I like four star hotels... they're comfortable and a great escape from the day to day world. But that's just it, they are an escape from reality. If we are interested in documenting what the world is really like, then we need to be a part of that reality. Of course, we could always go to the four star hotel and document that reality, a perfectly valid experience, but one that I would suggest is not the reality of the surrounding landscape or those who inhabit it.
Again, I do not disparage anyone celebrating a pristine beach, a cruise ship tour, a holiday filled with Christmas decorations -- all wonderful experiences. My point is about determining ahead of time what the experience will be about, or allowing the travel to influence us. Will we, as my father did, see everything through a viewfinder, or will we be influenced by travel itself? Will we record what we want to see or will we record whatever experience we find?
There is a meaningful difference here. In the first, we fixate on the recording of an experience and do not allow it to influence us, in the other, we are influenced by the experience and only then create an image that communicates what it has done to us. This is an incredibly powerful difference in our perception of the world. Creating photos, at least for me, has been transformative. It has enhanced the experiences I have been fortunate enough to be a part of, giving me an awareness of my surroundings and of cultures and people I am sure I would have missed otherwise. It has led me to consider what my place in the world is, from the vantage point of having the money to travel, having the time to take off work, having the luxury of being able to visit pretty much any country I choose to. Furthermore, I have been able to share these experiences through my images, and, at least I hope, have helped to bring about, if not a positive change, at least a better understanding of our world.
I've been thinking quite a bit about travel and photography lately. Every year, my family makes a point to travel somewhere outside of our usual comfort zone. I suppose it is in my blood. Growing up, I lived in South America and Europe, traveled extensively with my parents, and was brought up to believe this was the way things were. Only later did I find this was not the norm for many, if not most, Americans. This is understandable, as the continental U.S. is large, so traveling outside its borders is not really necessary or always feasible. But I have known many who not only never visited our neighbors to the south and north, but have never left the state they were born in.
This is astounding to me. To not even travel this amazing country of ours -- with its history, its diverse cultures, its landscapes of deserts, forests, mountains, and sprawling cities -- seems to be such a shameful loss of opportunity. Each region I visit holds so many hidden gems that make this world of ours so much more awe inspiring, so much more that what we see in our day to day lives.
The experience of travel is essential to understanding not only our immediate culture, but the cultures of humankind. In the United States alone we can see this diversity of thought from region to region, from state to state. The people of New Orleans experience a world where storms and flooding are a normal part of life, where the rule of law is based on French principles, not English, where the history and culture were predominantly from French settlers; the West Coast is younger than the East Coast, with Spanish and then Mexican influences; the Midwest had settlers from all over Europe, bringing British, Italian, Greek, and Scandinavian cultures with them.
And this is only a slice of the regional distinctions that make up the North American continent. Canada and Mexico have their own cultures far different from the US, First Peoples have cultures older than all of the European settlers, the slave trade and the import of Asian workers brought whole new layers of cultural history into the mix. As a photographer, amateur or professional, we have an opportunity to interpret the differences and similarities in the cultures that make up this land. How can we not?
Lately, I've read a few online articles implying to photograph while traveling takes away from the experience, makes one focus on the taking of an image rather than the experience of travel. I have seen, from my own experiences, this can be true. But is this always the case? I'll expand on this next time. For now, I encourage everyone to take the time to travel outside their comfort zone. This may be as easy as driving a few hours to see a metropolis, a beach town, a farm valley. Whatever you are not used to... take the time to experience it. You will be all the greater for it.
It has been one year since I began this journal, and it has been a year of experiences and growth. The original idea behind the website was to have a place to add some images, nothing more. When I found the service I used had a “journal” function, I thought what the hell… it was an opportunity to write down some thoughts. The writing was just a lark -- a way to add some pages to the ‘real’ reason for the website… photography. But as time has progressed, it has become quite a bit more. I seem to post more writing than I do images, and that is fine with me. The subject matter ranges from cameras, to image styles, to teaching, but in the end, it really isn’t about photography, per se. It uses the topic of photography to talk about ways to view of the world, think about life and to help people expand their horizons beyond the norm. Photography is just a vehicle to move on to more important things.
Now some people may think the point might be to get lots of views and responses to each journal entry. But that isn’t really me. It’s not important if there are dozens of likes or multiple comments on a post. They don’t matter. It's not about praise or glory or recognition. It's about making a difference. And if this journal makes a difference to even just one person, I've done something good. And as far as I can tell, I kinda did that with one of the posts... so I’m good.
So who was I when this journal started? As I said on the first post:
“After many years learning and using film photography as my medium, everything changed…”.
I thought I was talking about the world of digital photography, but what I was really talking about was myself. I have changed through the years -- from a young man who was sure that photography was not only forever, but was also my absolute identity -- to an adult who was seeing everything he held dear disappear to be forgotten. Yes, it was that bad. I had become disillusioned and felt the world had moved on without me. After many years of the world transforming itself, as it must do, I realized I was stagnating, and it was time to make some adjustments. The journal was one way to do this.
I am not the person I was then. I am more confident at work and in my day to day life; I enjoy the writing I do; and I’ve found photography again, which I have to admit, is still a part of my identity. Okay so maybe this journal is a little bit about photography.
But what changed me? Was it the writing or the photography? I think it was both, but in different ways. The photography was the impetus to make a website, but it wasn’t the real inspiration for change. Because of the technological developments in digital imaging, I was able to reconnect with my photography, which was great, but that was only a tool to use for change, not the change itself. Like driving to the store… the car is just the vehicle, not the reason for going. It was the journal, the lark that was only there to fill up space, that was the true instrument of change. Writing the journal has allowed me to organize my thoughts into something more concrete, to codify what I knew was there, but was unable to interpret until I wrote it down. I have grown through this process, and my photography has grown with that transformation. My work seems tighter, more focused; I don't automatically convert every image to black and white; I play around more with color balance, contrast, and developing a mood in images; I use both a mirrorless camera and the camera on my iPhone to create new work; and I am attempting to broaden my photographic horizons by trying out street photography. Not sure where that may lead, but that's for another journal post.
These posts have been an unexpected catharsis for me. I was writing just to jot down my thoughts on photography, but in the act of setting down thoughts, I have come to understand my motivations, the ways I see the world, the interactions (or lack thereof) with others. Although these journal posts have views, they are not high in number. They have very little commentary from others... there isn't really a lot of reason for it. The journal is really a diary of sorts… a way to work through the ups and downs that are the experiences of life. And that is where it has excelled. The changes that have occurred in the last year happened in small increments, so small I did not notice them. They culminated in a Valerie Jardin workshop on street photography, something my old self would have scoffed at and never participated in. I have learned a great deal about myself and my place in this world. Change is not always bad... or good. Change is just change. It's how we cope and what we do with it that matters.
I used an idiom in my first post a year ago... "I have seen the light". Well, have I seen the light? I think maybe that isn’t the point. It isn't necessary to fully understand everything. I don't have to know exactly who I am and where I am going. I thought I did a long time ago when photography was film and chemistry... and things would never change. I thought I knew exactly who I was and where I was going. All that did was send me down a dead end. It took a long time to realize you are never who you think you are and you never know where you'll end up.
You might have heard life is a journey, not a destination. Every step you make, the skips, the falls, the jumps, the runs... all those moves forward or backward (both are good!), make up who you are and lead you to new destinations every moment of your life.
Anything can happen.
In the last post, I wrote about having difficulty being present during my film and chemistry days. This happened because my mind was always living in the darkroom instead of the present moment. In this post, I'm interested in discussing what I'm calling "experiential" photography, the idea that you need to be present at the time you are actually creating images in the field, and by doing so, you gain a greater understanding of your surroundings and your photographic work.
My immersion into experiential photography has blossomed in the past year, all because of digital imaging. In this digital era, we no longer have to devote most of our photographic time to processing film and printing images. We no longer have to focus on the work ahead in the darkroom, and that releases us from obsessing over development and procedure (in other words... being somewhere else!). The digital camera has allowed us the freedom to consider expression in the field. This is its strength... the idea that expression is the journey, not the process. Chemical photography is process intensive. Mixing chemistry, worrying about temperatures and times, setting up the darkroom, printing images, making choices about film stock, paper bases, types of darkroom equipment... all of these factors must be in alignment with each other or the entire operation can fail. And it takes time, most of which doesn't involve the actual capture of images! You can argue you are creating the image in the darkroom, but that is my point... you don't create it when you actually take the image. It's all darkroom based, not experienced based.
Digital is different. You tend to focus on what is going on right now instead of what is going to need to be done later. You are engaged in the immediate capture of your image, not in the work that is to come later. You will have to edit the image on the computer at some point, but this work seems to have a distance from the actual capture of the image. It somehow feels less burdensome, less time consuming, less hassle. Mixing chemistry, developing film, waiting for it to dry, setting up the trays full of chemicals... it just takes inordinate amounts of time, and as I get older, it is all the more tedious.
Computer editing has freed me from all that prep time. I still have to get the images onto the computer, but that's nothing compared to the prep time setting up a darkroom. I have to color balance, crop, align, and make a dozen other choices, but again, nothing compared to spending hours in a darkroom to get that one "right" print. I hear fellow darkroom photographers cringing at my words, but honestly, it's a new day. I don't disparage any who can stand for hours on end creating masterpieces... I'm just ready to do it sitting down.
Yet there is more to it other than the physical demands, the time involved, or the processes that must be overcome. The digital world has opened up my eyes to a far greater range of possibilities in the field as I capture images. There is a sense of belonging to the time that I am shooting, a connection with the experience. These are things that got left behind, or at the very least, became minimized, in my film days. There was just too much to do after the image was captured on film to get a final print. My brain was focused on the "after moment", not the present moment.
Don't get me wrong... digital imaging is no easy task, and it creates its own set of issues. To create something meaningful has become in some ways a greater challenge than it has ever been. We now have to compete with thousands of images in forums, digital media, and throughout the internet, all posted on a daily basis! The shear amount of images creates a background noise that is difficult to overcome, with artists and creators who would never have gotten a chance to show their work, displaying images that are easily recognized in a matter of seconds. The strength of some of this work is uplifting, but also daunting... how do you compete with such talent?
The reality is, you don't. Photography, at least for me, is about self-exploration, not competition. It is about communicating thoughts and ideas through images and exploring the possibilities inherent within the photographic process. Digital imaging has allowed me to be engaged in that creation, which is the whole point. If you get bogged down with the process alone, your experience is about that process, not about interpreting the experience you're trying to capture using that process. There are many images where creation in the darkroom is the whole point... just look at the work of Jerry Uelsmann. For those who find interpretations are best made in a darkroom... great! This is not a competition. One isn't better or more meaningful than the other.
Let me remind you of what I said in a previous post...
Photography is not about being digital... or about being chemical... or about one being
better or more traditional or more real or whatever other inane argument you may see
online. I can appreciate film and chemistry for what it is without feeling like I've sold
out or abandoned "real" photography. If we want to get down to it, photography
started out with daguerreotypes -- positive images on metal. So film negatives aren't
real by that standard at all!
So there you have it... experience, engagement, exchange of information. Photography in a nutshell.
And always remember... there isn't a "real" photography. There's just photography.
In the film days, I had no idea what I had captured until it was processed, so whatever I ended up with was something"I meant to do". That's in quotes because it really wasn't so. Whatever the result, I told myself it was the way I wanted the exposure to look. If the image was slightly underexposed, it was because of the light quality at the time, or the image needed to be underexposed to create an atmosphere. If it was overexposed, I convinced myself I had so much film density to work with!
The more I think about it, the more I have come to believe I was fooling myself. I was fixing errors in the darkroom because of how I shot the image on film. Sure, I love the work I did and I am satisfied I accomplished what I wanted to at the time, but my time was spent in the darkroom, understanding every aspect of an image from an 'after I shot it' perspective. When I was out capturing images, I understood light and how it affected a scene, I saw shadows and the play of light, but my mind was on how I was going to interpret that scene in the darkroom, not on appreciating what I was viewing and interpreting in the field.
Since my mind was somewhere else, I photographed with the understanding I would change it later. Nothing wrong with interpretation of course... we do it all the time. But I think I might have lost the opportunity to interpret a scene at the moment of taking the photograph. Instead of appreciating a scene just for the scene itself, I was altering it in my mind, although I don't think I realized that at the time. I became disconnected from what was around me so I could interpret it later in the darkroom. I wasn't living in the moment, or better put, I was altering the moment to be exclusively a photographic one, not an experiential one.
I've seen online discussions about how we alter our experiences because of our photographic practice. Many believe they need to convince you to leave your camera at home to appreciate an experience. I can't fault them for saying this... they miss out on the experience of just being there because they focus on the photographic process instead of the journey of photographic communication and interpretation. If that is how you are, then I agree... leave that burdensome box at home!
That said... to be present in the moment and to also interpret that moment with my camera is as close to paradise as I'll ever experience in this world. The camera is my way of experiencing something greater than myself, something special and unique. If anything, photography has given me an insight about the world, one that helps me appreciate my experiences. I cannot count the times I have traveled without a camera and completely ignored the world around me. I was too busy doing whatever I was doing and getting to wherever I was going. I didn't take the time to slow down and appreciate the magic around me. The camera forces me into the experience, not away from it, and the process of creating an image makes me appreciate these experiences all the more.
I've been thinking a lot about digital imaging these days and how it compares with the chemistry days of photography. Anyone who has read my journal posts (is anyone reading them?) know I lost heart for a long time when digital took over the photography world. That experience changed me in a lot of ways, not always for the better. But with the passage of time, and a lot of soul searching, I have found digital imaging to be a wonderful way to communicate my vision and thoughts photographically.
It may not appear so, but the way we work with digital images has a lot in common with how we used to work with film. There are the technical aspects of course, shutter speeds and apertures still control the amount of light and the effect one gets in an image... it's just on an electronic sensor instead of a silver film base. We still use light-tight boxes (cameras) and optical focus devices (lenses) to capture the scene, and we still need to somehow develop these images to view them. Of course, we don't need to stand in a darkened room smelling chemicals and getting stained clothes as we process film or create prints, but we are still "developing" when we color balance or edit our images with computer software.
There is one great difference I have found that is beneficial to the photographic process, at least for me. Without the burden of spending countless hours processing film and printing in the darkroom, I find myself more focused on the thinking behind capturing and creating an image at the actual time of creation... in the field. This may seem counter intuitive to those that believe the image is created in the darkroom or on the computer as it seems reasonable to believe the more time spent editing, the more you are interpreting an image. Although I agree that does happen, I don't believe ALL creation comes from this post processing phase. Regardless of how long you take or your expertise in the editing process, the foundations of what you have to work with are set when you capture the image on film or with sensor, and the more you have to work with, the greater the result can be.
Photography is not about being digital... or about being chemical... or about one being better or more traditional or more real or whatever other inane argument you may see online. I can appreciate film and chemistry for what it is without feeling like I've sold out or abandoned "real" photography. If we want to get down to it, photography started out with daguerreotypes -- positive images on metal. So film negatives aren't real by that standard at all!
If anything, photography is about communication and about interpreting. It's about feeling, about emotion, about understanding, not chemistry and sensors.