It’s all about content

There are buttons on my digital camera that I have no idea what they do. Photoshop and Lightroom have pull-down menus that I’ve never explored and tools I’ve never clicked on.

And I don’t really care.

Despite my naïveté, I’m able to capture the image I want and produce a final print that is art.

Technique is secondary to me.

I have a colleague who called me with the news he had just kitted himself out with the latest in everything – new camera, lenses, PC, software, books, humongous external drive, etc., etc. – and was ready to jump into photography and take it seriously. I’ve encountered this before and the usual result may be technically perfect images, but uninteresting. No soul to
them. This kind of photographer knows everything technically necessary to maximize the equipment’s capabilities but then doesn’t know where to point the camera; of what should he take a photo?

It’s all about content.

What makes an image is what’s in it and how it makes one feel. While technically perfect images can certainly achieve this, images that are less than technically perfect can connect with the viewer just as easily.

Focus (pun intended) first on what makes an image worthwhile. Worry about technique second. If at all.


The subjectivity of objectivity

Photography is called “the objective art” as it captures moments in time, preserving them as they actually were versus being a creation of the mind as in painting or drawing. (This assumes, of course, the photo was not staged as it is in advertising or later manipulated, doctored or “Photoshopped” as it were, changing the essential nature of the original image.) A simple, direct, un-manipulated photo is generally accepted to be objective.

Yet, so much subjectivity goes into making an image what it is.

Start with the equipment – what camera is chosen? Then, what lens is selected, what focal length, what ISO, what aperture, what shutter speed? Digital or film? Each of these choices materially affects what the image will look like.

Then, where does the photographer stand in relation to the subject? How is the camera positioned relative to the subject? What is in the composition? Where is the light? What is the point of view? When is the button pushed?

Following the “capture”, what other changes are made to the image? How is it cropped? Retouched? Dodged or burned? Is it in left in color or converted to black and white?

When it comes down to it, then, there really is no true objectivity that goes into any photo. Yes, it is a captured moment in time, but that moment is carefully selected by whoever places the camera where it is and pushes the button when they choose to, leaving us with a very subjective impression of that moment in time.

Dad’s flowers

My father was an avid photography hobbyist. It was through his interest that mine was sparked and his initial instruction has served me all of these years.

His favorite media was slides. I’m convinced it was because Kodachrome offered the rich colors that he wanted to capture and slides were a then-version of file sharing. Analog, naturally. With the projector running and the screen set up in the living room, Dad would share his latest works with whoever would happily listen and look. And they were lovely.

I’m convinced were he alive today he’d be sharing his creations on Flickr. But that’s as far as it went then – as far as it could realistically go. No scanners existed 20 years ago nor was there digital file rendering within reach of the amateur. He simply had slides. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them that he (and we) could enjoy when the spirit moved him to convert our home into a screening room.

When he died, the question became what to do with all of these images. Slides and their partner projectors were becoming less and less the norm. After culling through them, I saved his best work that even today largely continues to exist in boxes in storage. Hundreds of images unappreciated by everyone.

One of his favorite subjects was shooting close-ups of flowers. He’d screw his “close-up” rings onto his 55mm lens (a Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic camera that predated the now-standard bayonet mount), mount the assembly onto a tripod and capture the colors and patterns that only bugs crawling around in the flowers could fully appreciate.

And so these images have sat – until recently. I’ve wanted to do something with them to preserve the images and make them more accessible – make that more visible – to those of us who appreciated his eye.I’ve just completed transferring the
first of these images to Polaroid film for the purpose of making Polaroid emulsion transfers that can then be displayed and enjoyed. Here are the first three in what I hope becomes a nice series of his images. Through the tools available today and mixing media, these images have a new life.

As I share these with you I toast my father for his creativity, his curiosity and his willingness to cultivate those characteristics in others. Thanks, Dad.

Shadows and Light

Life (and, by extension, photography) is full of shadows and light. The balance between them determines the mood, the mindset, the feeling.

A life full of light is lovely but it misses some of the contrasts that shadows bring with them; some of the textures, variances, details.

Conversely, a life full of shadows misses the highlights, the features that light offers; the bright spots, the warmth, the glow.

Only through a delicate balance between shadow and light is life seen to its fullest with its highlights and details; it’s textures and contrasts; its highs and its lows.

You need light to illuminate the shadows; you need shadows to appreciate the light.

Limiting creativity

Most people believe that creative people need lots of space to create – lots of blue sky or a blank wall and especially no limitations whatsoever.


While a creative person does need a certain amount of “room” to maneuver, the opposite is actually true. When one – and this isn’t limited to just creative situations – has constraints imposed on one’s work, that’s when the creativity begins. Rules or limited resources or not enough time or other limitations imposed on the situation are what bring out creative solutions.

An unusual example perhaps, but there was a couple in East Berlin at the time of the Berlin Wall who wanted to escape to the West, but had no possibility to do so – no compelling reason for asylum, no visas, nothing. Their solution was to take their Trabant (the tiny East German-made auto) and cut off the top and the windshield. As they approached the barricade at the border, acting as if they had the papers to cross over, instead of stopping before the arm of the gate, they laid down on the front seats and let the now-much-lower car simply roll under the gate’s arm to freedom in the West. Brilliant.
Constraints of all kinds forced them to focus and find a solution that worked right then, right there to meet their objective.

We continually need to ask ourselves: How can I accomplish what I want to do given my limitations? What possibilities do the limitations open for me?

In photography, the creativity that comes from being limited is refreshing. My catalyst: the Diana camera – a carnival-prize camera from the 1960s. It has a fixed plastic lens (no zoom here but there is distortion!), a fixed shutter speed, nearly fixed aperture and three options for focus that don’t really make a difference. And it leaks light fogging some images if one doesn’t seal the cracks. Its design restricts what one can do in this age of high-speed-digital-zoom-red-eye-reduction-automatic-everything photography. But those constraints are just a jumping off point for where the creativity begins. The camera, buy its very design, forces one to think differently about which images can be made effectively. 

The camera is obviously not suited for certain kinds of photography however what the Diana does perfectly is open up a semi-dream land in this crisp HD world we live in. A land of soft images, slightly out of focus… and square! (the camera makes 16 6x6cm images on 120 roll film.)

It’s wonderful.

The next time you feel you have too many limits that are holding back your creativity, think again. Limitations – whether they are not having the right paperwork or being stuck with a fixed lens and shutter speed (or no time, no money, no people, no whatever…) – force one to open up and find a solution.

To get creative actually.

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