Welcome to the latest installment of my uneducated ramblings on the thoughts of accomplished and successful photographers. Maybe I should start compiling a collection of my own sayings, one never knows maybe in ten years’ time some pimply faced kid is going to be putting up a blog illustrated with MY quotes. Though, I must admit that “Crap, I forgot to change the ISO setting on my camera yet again” is not going to be the most awe-inspiring pearl of wisdom to set the photographic world on fire.
So perhaps it is better that I simply use more established and wise personalities as a reference. So let us ponder upon the teachings of Mr. Henry Wessel.
Let us start with something simple.
“Most musicians I know don't just play music on Saturday night. They play music every day. They are always fiddling around, letting the notes lead them from one place to another. Taking still photographs is like that. It is a generative process. It pulls you along.”
I almost didn’t use that quote, at first reading I thought “Yeah another guy extolling the virtues of hard work and how practice makes perfect”. Too simple, I thought. But then I realized maybe there is something more to it than that. The analogy with musicians helped lead me to something else. Over the years I have tried to learn to play the guitar, and have simply given up. Despite spending every single spare moment torturing my poor fingers to learn to dance on the fret board, I came to the horrifically sad conclusion that I was absolutely devoid of any talent and that there would never be hordes of young women screaming for my attention outside my 50 acre mansion.
But all the musicians I know, not only practice every day they actually try something new each time they play. I remember seeing a documentary on Eric Clapton once during which he said that when he picked up a guitar to play he would have absolutely no idea what he was going to do. He would just start playing and the music would just take him wherever it wanted him to go. That’s just how musicians get better, improvising, trying new things, allowing their music (and sometimes themselves) to mutate (think Bob Dylan going electric when most people would have been more than ecstatic just listening to his “usual” protest songs).
The interesting thing is that most times this is so subtle that we are not even conscious it is happening. It was only after having thought a bit when reading the quote that I realized that I, myself have fallen victim to this tendency when I take pictures. People hate going on walks with me when I have my camera, because I can easily spend an hour taking pictures of a crack in a wall. “What if I did this?” “How about I knelt down?” “What does it look like when I’m flat on my stomach?” Worse is still to come: “Same subject, same angle of shooting, just a different aperture. What is that going to look like?” My dear wife is a model of patience, but even I can tell that sometimes she wonders if I am all there when she sees 50 pictures that look all the same on the computer screen (she doesn’t quite get how big an impact depth of field can have on whether a picture gets accepted on Dreamstime or not). It really is the photographic process that takes over and pulls me along. “Generative” indeed.
“I don't go out looking for pictures. I go out, and if something catches my eye, that's reason enough to photograph it.”
“It can happen anytime, anywhere. I mean, you don't have to be in front of stuff that's going to make a good photograph. It's possible anywhere.”
Moral of the “quotes”: never go anywhere without your camera. Well, personally I don’t. I am a worrier and lugging around a camera with me own the way to work on an overcrowded bus just tends to increase my stress levels. I don’t want to get into the office stressed out without even having looked at e-mails expounding the latest, brightest blue-sky ideologies (secret business code for “we are 20 years behind the competition and desperate to save our huge bonuses by imposing totally unrealistic and unachievable objectives on the staff”) of the powers that be.
But I do understand and agree with the sentiment. There are good photographs to be taken everywhere at any moment, and all that is required is someone with two eyes, a couple of hands and a finger on the shutter release.
And when you study Mr. Wessel’s portfolio what is so striking is how he captures seemingly banal subjects and turns them into a complex and captivating story.
“Part of it has to do with the discipline of being actively receptive. At the core of this receptivity is a process that might be called soft eyes. It is a physical sensation. You are not looking for something. You are open, receptive. At some point you are in front of something that you cannot ignore.”
But just having a camera around with you isn’t really enough now is it. You have to be willing to take the photo when you see something. There are so many scenes that we all seem to be completely inured to, we just seem to take so many things for granted and just walk past them without noticing them at all or dismissing them as routine and uninteresting.
A couple of weekends ago, a friend who had expressed an interest in taking up photography came to visit. I gave him a gift of a small camera that I don’t use anymore and we went for a walk. For once, we were not interrupting the walk because of my desire to take a picture of something but rather due to my companion’s interest in how something would look through the viewfinder. And these were simply things that I walked by every day and never once thought of raising a camera to my face and snapping a shot. It was almost as if he was visiting a foreign land he had never seen before and where everything was absolutely fascinating and absolutely could not be ignored. Reminded me a bit of myself when I started out in photography.
The camera does indeed have the potential of adding an extra eye simply because of the way it works. While humans unconsciously edit out things that we are not interested in at that particular time, a camera sees and faithfully records EVERYTHING that is in front of it. It is a matter of composing and cropping whatever is in front of the lens so as to create a new perspective and give new meaning to the scene. But this will not happen if the photographer is not receptive. Go in with an idée fixe and you will lose out on a multitude of opportunities. Go in with an open mind, receptive to the unforeseen and all possibilities and you just might come back with something that will have someone writing about your wonderful artistic accomplishment someday.
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