A Photographer’s Mantra

 

When you photograph you have to be prepared to fail, perhaps fail many times.

Expecting great results is the worst discouragement possible, because it means that you will give up the first time you make a barely decent image.

Take your pictures and don’t worry about the results, they will come eventually.

If some image is good it is not because of some great skill you possess. It appears, as if by accident. All you can do is give this accident of fortune enough chances to appear.

Don’t stop watching.

Don’t stop being curious.

 

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Visual Literacy – Advertisement or Visual Poem?

If you want to be a good photographer, you have to be visually intelligent and literate. What a writer does with words, juggling and dancing with them, subduing them, making them do things that they ordinarily do not, that you have to do with images.

But what does it mean to be visually literate? It means to be able to read an image; to understand that in a good image things might be coincidental but never meaningless; to be able to gather information from clues, hints, gestures – in short from all wordless things.

An image may tell you a story and in fact a simple hint for beginners is to make sure that there is a thread, a story, a visual movement in any image that you take. Imagine your subjects as actors of some sort of self-chosen and spontaneous drama. The image becomes a representation, something removed from the actual subject.

This may sound awfully philosophical, but it is true and very unwieldy. To see a picture of your dog on a cell-phone is not seeing your dog, even if the instinctive reaction inside yourself tells you different. It represents your dog, either in an act, or in a state. You have chosen to depict that moment because you want to achieve some purpose with it – the image is, for example, a squeal of remembered delight or a bittersweet reminder of your pet. This is very different from your actual dog who may be – in the very moment that you look at the image – looking entirely different in reality than on your image.

We are inundated with images, flooded with them, yet the fewest of us are actually visually literate and able to differentiate between them. Differentiation means a clear awareness of the intent and the information conveyed by an image, the active, conscious part as well as the subconscious part. Visual literacy means not only a quick ability to separate advertisement from information – a necessity in an age that gave birth to something as insidious as infotainment – but to be able to access the deeper layers of information contained within an image.

Look at a couple of portraits of people and attempt to describe their state. Can you do it in a word and is it utterly clear what their expression conveys? In that case it’s a bad image or an advertisement. Human expression is varied and always contains more than one emotion at a time. A clear expression might be good for propaganda, journalism and advertisement, but when it comes to actually depicting a human being, complexity is necessary. Apparently simple expressions like wonder, joy and frustration – how often do they appear clearly on a person’s face? Is it not more usual to see them mingled with other expressions?

Think about watching an actor or an actress that you admire. Are those the people that clearly and unmistakably show one emotion on their faces or is it people who stimulate discussion and wonder because the expression is multi-facetted and unclear? Because it needs more than one word to describe it?

Come away from thinking that every images needs to be entirely clear in composition or meaning. Juxtaposing different meaning, misleading the viewer, offering them to make their own interpretations…those hold much more fascination than a clear, easily readable image. It’s the difference between reading an instruction manual and a poem. Sure it’s nice to know exactly what’s going on, but wouldn’t you rather engage your imagination?

Three Ways of Photography

There are three ways to approach photography (at least for starters – after a while there are as many ways as there are fingers clicking buttons and eyes looking through viewfinders, but this is as good a starting point as any).

–          Photography as a technical matter

–          Photography as a philosophical matter

–          Photography as an aesthetic matter

In an ideal photograph all those different approaches would be on a level close to mastery. And certainly there are many photographers who have excellent abilities in all of these approaches, but most of them end up specializing on one or maybe two of them.

I would like to pick out a few examples for each of these approaches:

Scott Kelby would be an example of a master of photography as a technical matter. The writer of some of the best-selling and probably most influential guides on how to use photoshop has seen his style take over the works of many aspiring photographers. His aesthetic is very sleek and functional and rather underdeveloped and the philosophical content of his images is nil, but he obviously knows his way around his gear.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is, and this probably goes without saying, a master of the philosophical content. His works are among the most resonant of any photographer of the twentieth century. Technically his work is very modest – no tricks with perspective or depth of field, in fact he stuck to his old Leica for purely practical matters: it was small enough to allow him to shoot unnoticed – while his aesthetic is very subdued, influenced by and influence for the emerging cinematic arts and occasionally sublime. As far as philosophical content goes he might still be unmatched – his images work on so many levels and are worthy of every superlative.

A photographer who is masterly with aesthetic content is a friend of mine, the Polish photographer Malgorzata Maj. She shoots with very modest technical means but uses a very sophisticated method of post-production and her images have a strong and level philosophical streak inspired by influences ranging from Gothic horror to pre-Raphaelite sensitivities and more. They take inspiration from classical works of art and have a powerful sense of mood, atmosphere and personality. She has one of the strongest purely aesthetic approaches to photography that I know.

These photographers show three very different approaches, which are all completely valid and yield very different results.

If you are looking for an original, new and exciting way to shoot things, but aren’t that concerned about the content of what you shoot, knowing photography on a technical level might satisfy you.

If you are interested in the wider sense of what it is you are doing and consider photography a tool to understand humanity or the underlying connections between things or simply as a way to make thoughts visible and document elements of the world, you need to approach photography as a philosophical matter.

If photography is a means of heightening the visible world and making the unseen visible and not just a strict representation of the outside world, but a tool of introspection, then you should perhaps begin to consider the aesthetic aspects of it.

Of course this is not an exclusive list, but simply a way to start looking at the complexity of photography – even those three aspects are usually interwoven. A good photograph can contain elements of each of the three aspects (or of none), but it is a starting place for anyone who has ever wondered what makes a photograph good.