Sometimes out of focus works

You know the moment: There’s a photo begging to be taken. You shoot it and initially it looks good on the camera screen when you’re squinting at it in the sunlight. Later, back home when it’s downloaded on the pc, it’s not what you thought it was.

I know this feeling as well.

Chile. The slums of Copiapo. Long day of visiting families, doing interviews, shooting images for a client. As we were heading down the hill toward our waiting van, a lady with two children asked what we were doing. Somewhere, out of the depths of my memory came the answer – in Spanish – much to my surprise. It wasn’t perfect, but she understood me and asked what she could do to help. Imagine, a single mom living in poverty asking what she can do to help me. I was stopped by her question and the only response I could muster was, “Let me take photos of you and your children for our documentary project,” which she readily agreed to.

I snapped a number of images of her and her two children and out of the mix, one image of her daughter struck me immediately. It was of her daughter alone grabbing the fence in front of her. On my camera’s small screen in the bright light, the image looked just as I envisioned it: her daughter in focus with her hand and the fence out of focus.

Back at the hotel on my laptop’s screen I saw that it was just the opposite – the fence was in focus while the little girl was out of focus. A big sigh of disappointment followed and my initial reaction was that the image was destined for the trash.

As I gazed at the image, though, a different perspective emerged; I realized the image was actually perfect – the girl isn’t the subject of the image, the fence is. This fence is looming in front of the girl, holding her back. She is grasping the fence, recognizing it is there and trying to deal with it as best she can. It is a perfect metaphor for her life of wrestling with poverty and trying to break free of it and is a much stronger image than I first imagined.

Sometimes out of focus works.

Learning from the masters

Throughout history, art students have perfected their craft by learning from and studying the masters that came before them – and with good reason. The masters were – and still are – recognized for the quality of their work, the breakthroughs they made or further, the breakouts they did with their art.

So it is with photography. I enjoy studying the works of other artists – and not just photographers – to help me see the world differently and shape my eye as I strive to perfect my craft. Indeed, while I study various masters my goal is not to copy them but rather learn what they did to make a particular image or work of art; to try and understand how they saw the world so that I, too, may see the world differently.

Last year I was hired to document the charitable work of Connect the World. Connect the World is bringing alternative energy and Internet connectivity to Habitat for Humanity communities in five countries.  My role is to track the evolution of the projects and capture the stories of the families we’re helping via still and video photography.

Anyone who has seen my photography knows that people don’t figure in most of my images. OK, let’s be more direct –
I have not done photographs of people in any realistic volume ever. When I took on this assignment I found the “ask” challenging and questioned whether I’d be able to do the project justice. I needed inspiration.

Enter the masters: in this instance Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith and contemporarie Eugene Richards and Ed Kashi, whose work rank among the best ever in the documentary photography category. Looking at their images gives one a sense for how they told their stories and how they captured the essence of the people they documented. One should not work to replicate this work but rather learn from them and then apply their own eye, their own style – their essence – to their work making it uniquely theirs. Giving the work their personal essence, making it unique.

There’s always something new to learn from the masters – an angle, lighting, composition, cropping – some style element that separates a snapshot from a story. Each of the photographers I mentioned told or tells their stories in compelling ways and not through hundreds of images but, generally, just a handful. 

Four country visits into the project I see my style of people photography coming into its own – taking my eye and they way I see other objects and mixing in the lessons from the masters, with the resulting images being uniquely mine and, hopefully, compelling portraits of people in need of a chance for a better life. Please follow our work (join us if you’d like) and watch for more images of the people I meet here.

The return of instantcy

Polaroid – the company that missed the jump from instant photography to instant digital photography died a rather quick death. Within a short span of time, that magical experience of watching your photo develop before your eyes was gone…

Until now. The film is back. An enterprising group called The Impossible Project has redesigned and is producing instant film again. In this digital era, the beauty of one-off images is refreshing. The fragility of having only one copy of an image makes that image all the more special. The energy that comes from seeing an image develop is still here.

Digital images cost virtually nothing: the first image costs as much as the camera; after that, they’re all free. Each image from a Polaroid costs. On a comparative basis to printing digital images, they’re really expensive. But oh so lovely.

I love playing with the box, not just playing outside of it. Polaroid images have inherent restrictions as a result of the medium – square images, no zoom, no ISO adjustments, and on and on. A classic version of what-you-see-is-what-you-get that forces the photographer to really think through the picture before he presses that button and blows a few bucks on one image.

Sitting in attics, garage sales and thrift shops are Polaroid cameras awaiting someone to find them and love them again. I have a couple somewhere (I think in a box in Omaha) but recently ran across an SX-70 and have started shooting Polaroids again.

Instantcy and the world of one-off images is back.

10,000 photographs

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Henri
Cartier-Bresson

I’ve always liked this quote and, while never totaling my collection of negatives, slides, Polaroids and digital images, wonder when I passed my worst photographs. Someday when I’m bored beyond belief, I’ll count them…

Just the other day I picked up Malcom Gladwell’s recent tome “Outliers”, where he discusses the threshold of 10,000 hours of practice for one to be truly proficient, whether it’s for hockey, computer programming or to become a musical virtuoso.

Is it a coincidence that 10,000 is the magical number; that Cartier-Bresson and Gladwell both mentioned this threshold? I suggest not, especially in the heyday of Cartier-Bresson, which consisted of shooting 120 roll film (generally 16 images to a roll). At that count, one needed to shoot 625 rolls to hit 10,000 images – actually not that many rolls when one is shooting professionally on a daily basis. The rhythm of shooting, the routine, the constant learning that came with each roll moved one’s art forward. The key is that with film, every image mattered as every image had to be set up, framed,
focused and then shot – no motor drive or automatic focus back then. Plus, every image had a price associated with it – the cost per frame for the film, the chemicals to develop and the paper and chemicals to print the final image. One did not waste images if at all possible, forcing one to consider every mashing of the shutter release.

In our digital world, one can hit 10,000 images in a couple of days without really trying. What’s the cost? Zero – just the one-time cost for a memory card that can be written over multiple times. No cost to develop, save the one-off for some software. And one needn’t print an image to view it in its final form.

When trying to achieve the 10,000 mark, it’s not enough to hold the trigger down, let the automatic shutter/focus/everything do all the work and reel off tens of images at a time in hope of capturing that one shot. That’s counting on luck, not skill. One must shoot, review and learn from each and every image that’s captured. Like Cartier-Bresson did, only it’s a lot easier today thanks to the helping hand of technology.

The challenge, as always, comes down to seeing – what do you see, what do you capture and why? After 10,000 images I think one knows what to see and why.

When did I pass 10,000 images? I really don’t know, but if those are my worst, bring on the best.

Looking sideways

I was in LA last week for some meetings and had time one
morning to walk around before my other activities began. Without hesitation I
set out to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall – the Frank Gehry work of art that
doubles as a concert facility.

I’d seen the building in countless images, movies and
magazines but never in the flesh. Or steel, rather. I spent the better part of
an hour just walking around the outside of the building, wonderfully
constructed to be appreciated from all sides. There’s no back alley with dumpsters
and it’s not backed up against some other building. Instead, it’s a
three-dimensional sculpture with gardens that allows one to touch the building
at all times. What a concept!

About three-quarters into my journey around the building a
staircase appeared, inviting me to take the “skywalk”. Why not? The building
had me captivated in its approachability and accessibility, so I had to climb
further up and further in.

Music - three layers
 One thing I’ve learned in photography is always to look up,
look down, look sideways and look behind. Looking ahead is natural and once one
is behind the viewfinder, the world shrinks to what the lens offers. It’s too
easy to neglect what’s around you when you’re looking ahead through the lens of
a camera. The human eye has a field of vision of about 120 degrees, which
shrinks when looking through a lens, leaving at least 2/3 of what’s around us
out of sight.

As I climbed the stairs to the skywalk, I paused and turned
around. There, behind me, down to my left was the image I have here. On my
first run through the photos from that day, this is one that jumped out at me.
It may well be the best image I got that day out of the several hundred I shot.

My nature was to continue to climb, to get to the platform
of the skywalk and see what was there. My experience told me to pause, turn
around and see what was behind me. Being one who tends to look forward rather
than backward (as a life practice and philosophy), this move did not come
naturally. Yet, because I went against my nature and listened to the voice of
experience, I caught this slice of music.

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