Mr Callahan, meet Shadow. Shadow, pay your respects to Mr Callahan.
I love writing these blogs. Partly because I am incredibly shy and yet am still an egotistical maniac with an overwhelming propensity to volubility. Speaking for any length of time to any number of people renders me a nervous wreck. And yet holding my tongue and not saying anything would create such a huge conflict within my already demented mind that the resulting explosion could surely provide enough power to light up Times Square in New York for at least a year.
But I must say that notwithstanding the vainglorious compulsion, there is a more satisfying reason to the madness. Edification. I learn a lot by reading up on the various photographers that I feature in these ramblings. I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with most of the artists that I have talked about before embarking on this project. At times I even felt a little embarrassed at my lack of knowledge of such illustrious personalities. But, in the end, I remind myself of a lesson that I was taught by someone a lot wiser than most of the people I know. Starting out ignorant is not something to be ashamed of, staying ignorant when you have the opportunity to remedy the situation, should carry a most heavy penalty.
I taught myself photography by reading books. And after learning about exposures, field of depth, ISO, aperture, shutter speed, the most important guidance that stuck to me was to study the work of painters and other photographers. Each blog in this series is an opportunity to find a new perspective on how photographs may be taken. Very recently, I stumbled across the work of one Harry Callahan.
As a fan of Clint Eastwood (though the debacle at the recent Republican convention, has somewhat dimmed my ardour), I was already familiar with the name of Harry Callahan (“…you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”). But to be honest, possibly the Harry Callahan that I am referring to today is a tad more instructive to aspiring photographers.
Photography is an adventure just as life is an adventure. If a man wishes to express himself photographically, he must understand, surely to a certain extent, his relationship to life. I am interested in relating the problems that affect me to some set of values that I am trying to discover and establish as being my life. I want to discover and establish them through photography.
Callahan’s photographs illustrate his words above perfectly. His work was deeply personal and his family was always a pivotal subject.
I guess, any artistic medium, is a reflection of the person using it. Whether art is used to convey a social or philosophical message or simply as an ornament to beautify ones surroundings, art captures the essence of the its creator. It is inevitable.
The end deliverable is the result of a myriad of personal decisions the artist makes throughout the creative process. The decision to highlight a particular subject and how to portray it is coloured by the prejudices of the beholder. What is attractive to one may be repulsive to another, what is of paramount importance to someone is a matter of dull trivia to the rest of the universe. The choice of particular hue of green deposited on a canvas, or the particular chord change in a song, or the selection of a particular depth of field are all personal decisions. And all personal decisions are subjective and invariably tinted by the sensibilities of the one making the decisions.
The rare occasions when my wife accompanies me on a photography trek with her own camera, really help to bring this home for me. We may both snap an image of the same subject before us, but we each do it in a very different way. The angle of view that may please her may bore me, and the perspective I choose may confound her.
And yet the beauty of art is that there are no right answers but only a multitude of possible responses to what may be shared queries.
...To be a photographer, one must photograph. No amount of book learning, no checklist of seminars attended, can substitute for the simple act of making pictures. Experience is the best teacher of all. And for that, there are no guarantees that one will become an artist. Only the journey matters...
As I said before, I am a self-taught photographer. It is a habit of mine that whenever I discover an inkling of an interest within myself for a particular subject I morph into a black hole in an attempt to absorb as much information as I can about it. After having read the whole series of National Geographic Photography Field Guide books, I was absolutely certain that Cindy Crawford would be thumping on my door begging me to do a photo shoot with her (it was a toss-up between the photo session or her proposing marriage, I just thought the option involving a camera was more realistic. And if you don’t know who Cindy Crawford is… you are way too young and utterly despicable).
Theoretically, I am the perfect photographer. Every time, I imagine myself taking a photograph and applying all the knowledge I have accumulated about exposure, framing, composition and light, I never make a mistake and my image is invariably a masterpiece.
Everyone seems to say the same thing: “practice makes perfect”. Of course, if everyone says it, it must be true. Though I have a tendency to disagree because I don’t think perfection really exists. If it existed, surely someone would have already packaged it and it would be available on the internet for only $19.99.
But I can’t deny that there is no substitute for experience, and in this case that just means taking a gazillion photographs before one can even hope to call oneself a photographer.
I guess I've shot about 40,000 negatives and of these I have about 800 pictures I like.
Gosh, he cannot be much good then, can he? What was all that nonsense about “experience” if the success rate is going to be barely 2%?
But honestly, hands up everyone who comes home having shot a 100 frames and actually submits more than 40 of the photographs. Hmmm, OK. Now everyone who has more than 10 photos from those accepted keep their hands up and everyone else put their hands down. A little less hands up now.
For those of you with your hands still up… be honest, how many of those photos would you be willing to put up on the walls of your own living room? Not so many anymore.
And for those still in the running, maybe its time to set your standards at a higher level. Personally, if I were to be brutally honest with myself (which is kind of hard to do for me, since I love myself soooooooo much), I would only get a print of 1 in 2000 pictures I take.
Experience doesn’t necessarily always translate into great results. What it does do, is provide the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Or alternatively, it just provides the opportunity to make mistakes resulting in walls, ceilings and endless pillars of albums filled with mediocre photographs because self-importance clouds the eyes and the judgement.
The mystery isn't in the technique, it's in each of us.
The last quote I have chosen from Harry Callahan ties in very aptly with the first one I used and is, to me, the very essence of art. What makes art so exciting for me is that it cannot be explained by any amount of logical reasoning. It is visceral, it is magical, it is inexplicable. It just is. And what makes it, is what we as the creators of art carry within us. It is defined by who we are and in turn, to some extent, it helps define us.
The magic of art is not in the grip on the brush, or the f-stop. It is in the instinctual comfort of holding the brush in that particular way, it is in the personal vision of throwing some part of the scene out of focus.
The true fascination with art is in our innate yearning to understand life, the world, our fellow humans. And it is also the eternal desire to be understood by our peers. When it comes down to it, all we are doing is searching for some validation of our life and our very personal understanding of it by exposing to others what we cannot express using set formulae.
As always, I end with a personal request. Please, if you have enjoyed this blog or like my portfolio, please visit my Facebook page Shadow69 Photography
and click on “Like” to show your appreciation and support.