A funny story (fiction).
I hiked up to the vista only to find another photographer quietly staring at the mountain with his camera set up on his tripod. I left him alone and took a few photographs. When the other photographer noticed me he walked over and struck up a conversation.
“The lights not good. There’s just overcast and no visual interest in the clouds. I’m not sure I’ll even take a photo today” he said.
I nodded and said “I got a few shots in”.
He gave me a crooked smile and asked “you think they’ll be any good in these conditions?”
“They’ll be at least as good as the photo you didn’t take”. I said. Luckily he got the joke and didn’t bludgeon me with his camera.
Sometimes you have to work with the light you have and make the most of it.
In 1984 Ansel Adams passed away and his work must have been widely celebrated because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know him or his work but this was long before I had an interest in photography. When I did eventually take up photography being a landscape photographer was of no interest. The landscape where I grew up was beautiful and I appreciated it but the idea of photographing it seemed about as cool as safari vests and Birkenstock sandals.
Most photographic instructional books tend towards landscape or portraiture as the majority of photos fall into one of those categories. You can then further divide that into indoor studio and outdoor photography and divide more ad nauseam. I’ve read quite a few of books and articles over the years and gleaned what I could apply to what I was doing but a lot of the techniques weren’t relevant to me.
I’ve mostly worked with black and white film and never attempted to master the process in the “fine art” sense. Mostly I find it tedious but every part of the process is an art unto itself. Taking the photo is just the first link in a long chain of events to get to the final image in print. Now, with digital interpolation we’ve added a few more steps to digitize the film and for the majority of our work the virtual world is where it hangs and the hard drive or cloud is here it’s archived digitally.
As I get older I realize the days of photography having a social impact are long behind us. That’s not to say photography isn’t important or relevant as a document for posterity but of the millions of photos shared daily few of any can change the world. This is from the viewpoint of a jaded middle aged man so take that for what it’s worth. I’m enjoying creating the illusion of the peace and quiet of nature at the moment and finally applying some solid photographic discipline that’s been honed over the 150 or so years of the practice.
I’m a gear head by nature. I love mechanical things. I love sculpture and industrial design. Cameras of the 20th century were mechanical marvels. Lots of tiny parts assembled to work synchronous with each other to divide fractions of a second multiple times. Or sometimes they were simple levels and fulcrum. I could talk about gear for hours. If film become obsolete I would still appreciate and collect film cameras.
Gear can get in the way of photographing, but more often than not for gear heads it can get you out there shooting in places you might not otherwise explore just to be out taking photos. That’s the nice side of it. The not so nice side is you can spend more time worrying about the gear you want than using the gear you have. For the most part I’ve been GAS free for almost a year. It feels good. There’s gear out there I want, sure, but I’m not preoccupied with it.
It’s the tail end of a long summer and my shirts sticking to my body like a wet blanket. Oddly, I’m thinking about winter. My last serious photo outing was six months ago when I drove from my home in Virginia to Asbury Park, NJ for a chopper show and swap meet. I brought along a Polaroid SLR and my 35mm Nikon.
While driving to the boardwalk with Bruce blaring on my radio courtesy of Spotify I was overwhelmed by the sights of the city. Often when I’m driving I see buildings I want to photograph but don’t have the time to stop. I make mental notes to come back one day and explore. When I walk I see things I miss while driving and more often than not I end up with photos very different than my original inspiration. The best way to see the world is as a pedestrian.
Unfortunately I only took a few photos that trip but I definitely want to go back. New Jersey has a charm very familiar. It’s the same charm that Oakland has for me. It’s not glitz and glamour it’s grit and grime. Blue collar bars and rusty cars.
Critical thinking oft ends up sounding bitter and negative when expressed in its written form. A master critic can praise and constructively critique a work but many critics are not masterful. Take Susan Sontag On Photography as an example. Her criticism on photography is highly de-constructive in my opinion, but masterful in its ability to provoke thought. Still, how anyone can read it and then pick up a camera afterwards without feeling self conscious to point of paralysis is beyond me. I certainly couldn’t. Being a thinking artist is not easy. I don’t know that I ever fully regained my feet after reading Sontag.
Photography as an artistic expression isn’t always paired with photography as a craft. Many respected photographers wanted nothing to do with the developing and printing of their work. Today, as a film photographer, if you’re not exceptionally funded somehow it can be a real struggle to work that way. So most of us do as much as we can ourselves. Some of us control that process from shutter to print or publish. When life gets busy I tend to put film photography aside. I might continue to shoot but my film piles up in a box waiting to be processed. My iPhone becomes my primary camera and I go about my busy life until I feel the urge to practice that craft.
The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust.
In the last few years I’ve seen new photographers pop up with amazing talent and a knack for constructing amazing images. But very few photographers bring anything new to the medium. My point isn’t to be critical of their work but to be critical of my own. What am I adding to the conversation? It’s very well to take photos for myself for the sheer joy of photography but I feel driven to do more than find recipes in life that I know combined with the right film and camera will result in a popular photo. I want to be like Shore or Baltz and make images that transcend populism. But to follow in their footsteps because it’s easy to do superficially isn’t the same thing as turning established universally accepted ideas of artistic qualities on their head. They’ve already done that. You can be content to mimic their vision perhaps and maybe convince yourself you’re carrying on their legacy but once a barrier has been broken it’s broken for good until it’s been restored. No one said being an iconoclast would be easy.
Declaring War on Nostalgia
If everything’s been done already why not do it again? Nostalgia is a powerful tool. Square framed faded drugstore prints look great. Old signage. Old cars. Memories of better days artificially created by cropping out inconvenient truths. Nostalgia to the “documentary” photographer is the homeless man on the corner to the street photographer. It’s not for me to judge what’s good or bad, right or wrong, I’m just pointing out that it’s low hanging fruit many of us are picking. I’d like to reach higher. I’d like to see my peers reach higher.