I think everyone must experience the same thing. When you go to a place for the first time there are the obvious photographs that you have to take. With time however, either in the span of a single shoot or several shoots digging deeper to find the images that are truly a unique expression of our voice is surely what we should be striving for.
I have photographed intensively at the same location for at least a year now. I keep surprising myself in that I can generate new images when I give myself the chance. Returning to the same place in different weather, different times of day, different times of year more or less guarantees that you’ll have photographs that are different from one another even if they contain the same recognizable elements.
What I’m finding is that returning to the same place time and time again, I have to get out of the way to make new photographs. I have to drop the preconceived notions of what I’m going to find and of what I’m going to shoot. When I let these all go and be open to what’s there and what catches my interest then I’m able to make something different to the time before and the time before that.
For me being open and receptive can be touch to attain some days others I’m there almost immediately. It means slowing down. It means take time to wander around and look to get a sense of the place before getting out the camera. And then spending time with the camera off the tripod exploring options before locking into any one thing.
I suspect that the process will be different for everyone but the goal should be to slow down sufficiently so that you really see the options available. I’d be interested in hearing how you go beyond the obvious.
The deeper that I delve into photography the more I realize how hard I find it to create a successful photograph using just a rules based, intellectual approach. The successful images come when I apply the technical understanding to capture the scene that really stopped me in my tracks. Being able to be stopped in my tracks happens when I slow down and quiet the chatter. This kind of slowing down and taking time to quiet the chatter is something that I’ve come to naturally but is something that I have heard both Michael Kenna and Paul Caponigro refer to. Michael Kenna has called this communing with the land, while Paul Caponigro refers to his stance of silence and to having to shut up when the subject calls to him.
Some call this contemplative photography. It was this phrase that caught my eye when I was browsing amazon.com and that led me to The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Kerr and Michael Wood. The focus here is on seeing clearly or as Cartier-Bresson puts it ‘putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis’. Kerr and Wood break down contemplative photography into 3 distinct phases: The Flash of Perception – the recognition of something special that is likened to ‘being awoken form sleep by a loud noise’: this is then followed by Visual Discernment, maintaining the contemplative mind after the flash of perception and then finally, Forming the Equivalent, taking the picture that is equivalent to your perception. Each of these stages is explored in detail with their own chapters that include assignments to help you practice and example photographs to provide inspiration. The example photographs aren’t exemplars or templates to be repeated since we all will respond to our environment in different ways and as a result make very different photographs.
I must admit that I enjoyed reading and working through the book. I also find the connection made between photography and Buddhism interesting too. Kerr and Wood argue that both contemplative photography and Buddhism are concerned with clear seeing. They argue that clear seeing is the ultimate antidote for confusion and ignorance, freedom from which is a key tenet of Buddhism.
The book is not all sunshine and roses – I can’t help but take issue with the notion that the use of telephoto lenses and filters adds an unnecessary artifice resulting in plasticky photographs. Does this mean that we should only be using ‘normal lenses’ that mimic the human eye? Hardly. One of the reasons that I’ve been disappointed with my results in the past is that I haven’t been able to simplify the scene to a point that makes me feel satisfied when I see the image on the computer days later. Similarly using a filter to ensure that I don’t blow the sky out, to compress the dynamic range of the photograph is increasingly important to my being able to capture a successful image. I would argue that you should use whatever tool or tools it takes to be able to render the image that you felt and that the key is to reach a level of fluency with those tools such that the technical doesn’t get in the way as you move to making the image that stopped you in your tracks. A minor quibble with a book that I have enjoyed working through over the course of the last few months.
I love the quote above from David Allen, the productivity guru most well known for Getting Things Done or the ‘GTD System’. It’s so right, on so many levels. Ignore the things that you should be doing and they will demand your attention, even if only to stop you from sleeping because you’re thinking about those issues as you try to nod off.
It was this David Allen quote that I was mindful of when I was away in Martha’s Vineyard a week or so ago but really in a very different way. I do find it difficult to photograph if I’m not fully present and this can take some time to get to if there’s all kinds of other stuff unrelated to the scene in front of me that I’m thinking about. Fortunately I have no problem quieting everything else to focus on what’s in front of me, although it can take 15 – 20 mins and a couple of hundred frames to get into the zone.
What I am aware of though, is that I can be so intently focused on the scene that I have framed that I frequently ignore the moments when my intuition tells me there’s a great photograph to be had. This could be paying attention to some stuff that I would consider to be a little weird – such as the image of the shells and seaweed above – and would normally walk by, simply reframing from the position that I’m already in or could involve a bit of a wander to get to a place where the light is doing interesting things.
How clear what the photograph is also varies – it can be crystal clear or could take a bit of work to get there. The work usually typically involves simplifying the image so that it has just the elements critical for whatever caught my eye, whether it was interesting light, a vivid color or something odd happening such as how the waves came together in the image below.
I feel that some of my better photographs have been in response to listening to my intuition and so, as is the case in many aspects of life, paying attention to what has your attention is equally applicable to photography and is a work in progress for me.