“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” – Steve Jobs
No, this is not going to be a blog about sayings by the late Steve Jobs. It just happens to reflect very well the reaction I had (eventually) upon seeing a sample of photographs taken by Paul Caponigro. The pictures I was looking at were mostly still life or landscapes, and I am ashamed to say that upon a superficial glance, I was inclined to dismiss them as simple shots that just about anyone could have taken, myself included. Nevertheless, it demanded somewhat of an effort to stop looking at those images.
A devastating thought arrived to crush my original sentiment. My first instinct to label the prints as simplistic and within the grasp of even a buffoon such as me was not just naïve but was in fact incredibly self-delusional. The fact was that I had not taken a single photograph even remotely resembling anything like them.
I began to realize that though the composition may appear to be fairly straightforward, a lot of thought must have gone into placing each item in the viewfinder just so. After all, over a million people visit the Stonehenge every year, and God alone knows how many rolls of film or digital sensors have been exposed to the sights afforded at that location, and yet just how many of these images could arrest my attention in such a manner.
Going through, what, I am certain was a carefully nuanced and well thought out process to produce something that reveals only extreme simplicity, Mr Caponigro captivated my imagination to the extent that I am now punching up a keyboard in an amateurish attempt to pay homage to his stellar work. And believe me that is quite an accomplishment considering just how lazy I am and loathe to exercise my brain cells for anything other than my personal gratification.
To all those who think of themselves as “landscape photographers”, check out his images and bang your head in despair upon the ground under his feet.
Some of my photographs have always been a mystery to me in terms of how I arrived at them…
The above line is a small part of a much longer quote by Paul Caponigro. To be honest, I didn’t really bother understanding the rest of what was said. That simple confession resonated so strongly with me that my eyes were not quite able to focus on the rest of the words.
I have to admit, I have a sneaky suspicion that there may be a huge chasm between what Mr. Caponigro intended by his words to signify and why they resounded with me. So, in the highly unlikely instance that the man himself comes across these musings, I hope he will forgive me. And if he is not inclined to do so, I wish to immediately inform him, that I am definitely not of sound mind and therefore cannot be held responsible for my acts, so undertaking any legal pursuits against me shall be of no utility (especially as I do not possess much of anything that is of any great worth, so it will not even cover the shark bait).
Looking at photographs produced by others, I continuously find myself challenged as to whether or not I would have been able to deliver the same results. Certainly this is often the case with regards to the artistic vision that leads to the result. Would I have considered a certain pose, or a particular composition? Would I have been pleased by the way the shadows fell or would I have looked for a different light?
Recently, I have had a chance to go over some photographs I took several years ago. And yet again, I find that I am continuously intrigued by the process that I went through at the time to arrive at one image or another.
After the passage of time, I sometimes find myself at a complete loss to explain what I was attempting to demonstrate in a particular image. But at other times, I find myself fascinated by the reasoning behind certain images. Why did I decide to choose a certain depth of field, or a particular angle? Sometimes, I wonder why I decided to boost the contrast here and not there. Why did I attempt to convey the scene this way or that? Was there something I missed the moment I tripped the shutter that may have added a je ne sais quoi
to the overall atmosphere of the image?
I suppose such musing may appear to denote a certain incertitude as to my abilities with a camera. On the other hand they may simply be read as a fascination with the mystery that the process of creation holds for me. It is only by asking such questions measure our progression. Oceans may yet have countless mysteries to yield and space may well be the final frontier, but I am still continuously perplexed by my own inexplicable need to create (or my inability to do so).
The key is to not let the camera, which depicts nature in so much detail, reveal just what the eye picks up, but what the heart picks up as well.
Aha, therein lies the rub. Maitre Caponigro now expects us to involve a dimension which apparently grants meaning to whatever is laid before us.
It is hard enough to capture what our eyes see, because as opposed to the lens and sensor, our eyes and brain are so much more adept at interpreting the world around us.
My mind is a wandering thing, and I find myself deviating from the original line of thought I was pursuing to indulge in a rant. If you are not interested, skip the next few paragraphs.
I have always found the megapixel race to be as nonsensical as the nuclear arms race. How many damn nuclear missiles do we need anyway? Wouldn’t just eight do a good enough job of destroying the world?
I mean I remember the time I printed an A3 size poster of a shot taken with my old Canon G2 compact. It came out good enough to hang on my living room wall! Why in hell’s name do I need 80MP for? OK, ok I am leaving myself open for a ton of abuse from people who will not agree, but bear with me and consider for a moment if there are not some other more desirable features you would like your next camera to provide you with.
Personally, I would just about eat a plateful of live, wriggling worms full of green yuck for something that will render the concept of HDR or exposure bracketing a moot question. OK, perhaps I would not actually eat the worms, but I would do a lot for a camera with a dynamic range that comes close to matching the ability of my eyes and my brain to adapt almost instantaneously to the light and shadows of a forest scene at high noon (imagine no more rejections because of blown highlights or clipped shadows).
OK, done with the detour, back on the main road again.
I cling tenaciously to the notion that any successful artistic endeavor must demonstrate an essence of whatever is depicted. So how does one represent something that cannot be seen, touched, smelt or tasted no matter what the medium?
The more I think about this, the more I realize that taking a photograph is not the instant gratification of aiming the lens at something and pressing down on a button. In the end, and many may disagree with me here (how dare you), it comes down to the careful and considered composition of the image. Oh how simplistic that sounds.
But a successful composition involves a lot more than just the rules of thirds or filling the frame with the principal subject.
I am reminded of a story told to me by one of my literature professors of an author who was obsessed with perfection. He never completed a novel. In fact, he never got past the first sentence. He would endlessly fiddle with the one phrase trying to refine the vocabulary and structure to his everlasting disappointment.
A truly successful composition tells a story. The challenge is really in deciding what should be part of the composition and carefully selecting the elements that are important to the plot. And then placing those elements so that there is a narrative that gradually unfolds: a beginning that entices, a middle that captivates and an end that satisfies (or alternatively leaves the viewer wanting more).
It is one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it's another thing to make a portrait of who they are.
Aha, find someone with an expressive face then, or someone who has managed to master the art of faking sincerity. Zoom in really close and keep the focus on the eyes razor sharp. Easy, right?
Except it really isn’t, is it?
Take me for example. Most of the people, who think they know me, persist in the belief that I am a kind, intelligent, multi-dimensional and caring person with a delightful sense of humour (more fools they). And yet, every time I appear in a photograph, it is invariably the portrait of a sulky, angry, mean, frustrated and humourless misanthrope.
So who is right? If a subject is uncomfortable sitting for a portrait all the technical prowess in the world may not render justice to the real person. It is the photographer’s duty to make the model feel comfortable and relaxed. But even my self-portraits depict me to be a most surly specimen of the human race. Considering that the images that feature yours truly that I am particularly attached to are the ones that I took myself, I am certain that the pictures that I take of myself are indeed quite successful and am quite prepared to accept that I am an entirely despicable person (rather that than disparage my lofty ambitions with the camera).
Work incessantly, cultivate discrimination, gather freedom from your own hard-earned results. Disregard successes but go back for help in an immediate problem. The possibility of discovery is everywhere. Freedom from your own work allows for intuition that draws from all your experience and perception but goes beyond it.
Even by my standards I seem to have suffered an excessive bout of verbal diarrhea, and the unease is certainly not helped by the sneaky suspicion that I have not said much of substance. So I have convinced myself that I should just shut my gob and leave it at that.
Ah, but I must have the last word, so I shall leave you with just one thought concerning the quote above. We do indeed learn more from our failures than our successes. The warm glow of a victory washes away the aches of the hard toil that led to it and erases its memory so that we forget to reflect upon the reasons behind the accomplishment. And though failure may bring with it some despondency, it also brings with it a greater opportunity for future reward. After mourning the loss, it is a chance to consider the mishap and gain wisdom. And we must thereafter practice that wisdom to the point that it becomes such a part of our intuition that we no longer even realize all the thought and work that goes into a portrait that captures “what the heart picks up”.
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