The allure of various media, Part I

I have spent most of my life shooting in black and white. Besides being accessible and affordable when I was starting out, I discovered that black and white forces one to fully appreciate the essentials of composition – relying on lighting and textures to make the image versus leveraging the color inherent in a color photo. Don’t get me wrong – a good color image has to have the elements of composition present, but often color is relied on to make up for composition.

 

 

Up until a few years ago I was still shooting my reliable Pentax Spotmatic F that I bought when I was 15. Despite the fact I had been seeing my camera for a number of years on more than one photo shop’s antique shelf it still worked and met my needs. But, it was time to move ahead and catch up with the times, if for no other reason than to reduce the weight of my load as the Pentax was made in the days of brass and steel, as were the lenses.

 

 

I enjoy experimenting with photography – trying new techniques and methods to generate interesting works of art. Today, I work in three main media – so-called “analog”, or film, Polaroid transfer and digital. I liken it to how other artists choose oils or pastels or pen and ink for certain works of art. Certain images are meant for certain media.

 

 

Yes, I still shoot “analog” black and white images, primarily with my Diana camera. The Diana came out of China in the 1960s and was frequently used as a carnival prize. Every bit of it is plastic including the body and the lens, resulting in light leaks and not-so-clear images. In these days of automatic everything, digital and instantaneous imaging, it’s refreshing to pull the Diana from my bag and shoot with it. The loud snap of the shutter followed by the grinding click as I wind the film to the next image always generates a number of pathetic looks from folks around me. Still, being forced to frame an image (square, no less, as it takes 120 roll film) and shoot with a single shutter speed and effectively a single aperture (it has three but it’s hard to tell much difference between them) is a refreshing challenge. Certain images ask to be shot with this camera and I’m having difficulty in telling you specifically which ones as there’s such a “feel” to it. The images are ones that don’t require a great deal of detail and in fact are better viewed if the detail is less pronounced. The distortion that the lens creates gives images the “edge” they need. The results are always interesting – slightly out of focus, dream-like and grainy – perfect for the feeling I wanted to convey.

 

 

Void of a darkroom (more on that later) I develop the film at home and then scan the negatives into Photoshop for printing.

Be the only one who does what you do

You don’t want merely want to be considered the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do. — Jerry Garcia

Indeed, to be “the best of the best” suggests that others occupy the same space as you, only you do it better by some form of measurement. If, on the other hand, you are the only one who does what you do, you create a new category, a new space, a new genre. The Grateful Dead did just that. They created their own genre of music and solely occupied this position. Interestingly – and a bit of a digression – the Dead encouraged attendees of their concerts to record the concert and share it with others – a very early form of free peer-to-peer file sharing that pre-dated the PC!

Still the message is clear – occupy your own creative space. Others may attempt to copy you but, again, you are the only one who does what you do, so their effort will come up short. Truely memorable creativity comes from those who look at life in their unique way and share this perspective with others so they may see life in a similar fashion.

Break away. Create that new form or style. Be the only one who does what you do.

On Composition

What comprises good composition? Is it the 1/3, 2/3 rule where the overall composition is thus “in balance”? The right balance of light and dark? Of viewpoint and angle? Of objects in the foreground, middle ground and background giving the image proper depth? Indeed, all of these are key to good composition.

I add yet another aspect of what constitutes good composition. To me, truly good composition (in concert with the elements above) means that the image is interesting whether it’s hanging correctly or at 90, 180 (i.e. upside down) or 270 degrees off of “correct”. Look at one of your images in these ways and see if it’s not still interesting. Many times an inanimate object looks equally good – or perhaps better – when viewed in this fashion.

I regularly smile when someone turns one of my images around looking for the “correct” way to view it. It’s natural to want to have some reference, some understanding of the subject matter when we look at images, but it gives me great satisfaction from a composition perspective when the solution isn’t so clear for the viewer.

Ralph Gibson

My mentor, Howard Stephens, introduced me to complete new worlds of photography. He took the basic building blocks my father had established and expanded my view of the craft. I’ll write more specifically about him in another Catalyst, but his teachings came more from conversation than from demonstration. He regularly challenged my thinking and perspective – not by critiquing my work per se but rather over a cup of coffee reflecting on something he had read or seen.

One such conversation focused around a quote by Ralph Gibson. I don’t recall exactly where the quote was taken from (some book) but given when Howard showed it to me, it had to come from the mid-1970s at the latest. For me, it sums up the challenge of photography better than any other I’ve seen:

The question these days is not how to photograph because we have automatic cameras and sophisticated materials and you can become a fairly accomplished photographer technically after a few months of real work. It’s not like painting. So I think the first question is what to photograph. And then the question is, once you know what to photograph, where do you put the camera? If you get these two right you’ve got yourself a strong work. If the what is strong and you put your camera in the right place, it’s very simple.

This is more relevant today than it was 30 years ago, no?

The Yes Man

I’m currently reading the book “Yes Man” by Danny Wallace. Great read. Danny was in a slump in all ways in life and saying no to most offers – drinks with friends, parties, trips – everything. One day, while riding a bus, the man next to him suggested he should say yes more often. As the book title suggests, he did just that and it changed his life.

“No” stops everything. It’s final. a dead end. “Yes”, on the other hand, moves things forward. I’ve learned in my years of living and working in countries where I don’t speak the language that saying no shuts out opportunities where saying yes – even if I’m not certain what the question was – exposes me to new things. And I’ve never gotten myself into a bad situation for saying yes, either!

The creative teams at Walt Disney employ this technique. In meetings, instead of saying “no” or “but” to ideas, they say “yes, and…” building on the idea presented, morphing it perhaps, but definitely moving it forward toward the ideal solution.

“No” is comfortable and predictable. You know what will happen when you say no. Nothing. Which is absolutely stress-free. “Yes” can raise your pulse and perhaps make you a bit nervous as you don’t know where it may lead you, but it will make for a better story when it’s all over.

Try it. Say yes more often.

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