Writing with Light

Photography, from Greek: Photo
= light, graphy = writing. (Sounds
like a decode in a Dan Brown novel…)

“Writing with light” sounds far more interesting than “taking
a picture”, doesn’t it? Sounds more personal, more thoughtful, more deliberate.
Which it is.

Photography is all about knowing what light you have, where
it is and what its role is in your image. At a minimum, the base, it’s simple:
no light, no image. With a broader perspective, being aware of the light is
what makes an outstanding image outstanding.

At all times, you must sense where the light is and ensure
it is working best for the image you want to create. Like searching for the
right word or phrase to communicate a thought, an idea or a feeling when you
have pen in hand.

Seeing the light is a learned behavior. You must consciously
look for the light, be aware of the light, and see how it is interacting with
the subject; how it completes the composition you’ve made and use it to its
fullest. Obviously, something initially caught your eye suggesting there was an
image to be made. Usually it’s the composition that grabs you, but it ultimately
comes down to the light on that subject that makes the image. Look how the
light affects the subject and the areas around the subject. How it enhances or
detracts from the composition. The key to writing with light is knowing how
best to leverage the light available in your composition.

Frequently, with available light photography, leveraging the
light requires an immediate decision. When you see the right light on a
subject, the time to ‘write’ is at that moment – not in a few minutes, not when
you come back later or on another day, but at that precise moment. To miss that
chance to write with light is the same as not writing your feelings and thoughts
in your journal immediately. Waiting until the next day or week to put your
thoughts down dilutes the emotion and sharpness of the experience – if you
haven’t already forgotten the entire thing. Waiting to write with light until later
means the light will not be the same hence the image that you saw will also not
be the same as it was when the moment was right.

Seeing and feeling the light when you compose an image is
what separates writing with light from taking a picture.

Carpe luminis!

Seeing what others don’t

“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I
didn’t photograph them.”
  Diane Arbus

While this is particularly true about Arbus and the people
from the margins of society that she photographed, isn’t this the charge all photographers
have in carrying out their art?

If I shoot what people see regularly, where’s the magic in
that? Nice postcards may be the result, but they’re hardly unique and rarely
interesting. I need to bring something to the image that makes it unique and –
more importantly – uniquely mine. While virtually all of my photography
captures what is naturally there (in that I don’t “Shop” my images beyond what
adjustments I would do in a darkroom with film) my goal is to share my unique
take, my unique perspective on the subject to show others things that they wouldn’t see if I didn’t photograph them.

Each of us possesses a unique perspective on subjects around
us – whether a camera is involved or not. It is our obligation to share these
unique perspectives in order that others may “see” things that they normally
wouldn’t. Often these different perspectives remain unseen due to the politics
of a situation or the insecurity of the person who has this perspective. We
need to be daring, need to push ourselves to share our ideas so that others may
see what they would otherwise miss. Only then can a subject be fully explored, understood and perhaps seen in a new light.

Move your art forward every day

Patricia Moran once said, “Discipline is admired in opera
singers, engineers, dancers, pianists or brain surgeons but, for some peculiar
reason, when a painter is undisciplined, it is considered creative, new and
innovative, or even genius. Usually, it is just bad painting.”

The same applies to any visual art, including photography. I
try to move my art forward every single day. I don’t always make it, but five
out of seven days in the week I do something
to improve my art –
shoot, print, retouch, study, visit a gallery/exhibit, work on a portfolio,
write, take a class, read, visit with others, plan, organize – something
related to photography with the eternal goal of advancing my art. It sounds disciplined and it is, although it is pleasurable versus painful. Instead of being an obligation, it’s an aspiration – and inspiration.

I do not want to remain where I am with my photography. I
like what I’ve done in the past and I like what I’m doing presently, but I
continually want to learn something new – a new technique (maybe an old one,
but new to me), test a new perspective, learn something unique from another
artist from any visual or performing art – whatever is possible to push my
limits, push me out of my comfort zone, make me try something different in order to move me ahead in developing who I am
as an artist.

Ms Moran said discipline is admired
for many artistic areas and discipline must be a key part of a photographer’s
life. Constant study and focus (pun intended) are necessary
in order for a photographer to refine and grow his or her craft.

Gotta go. It’s late in the day and I still need to move my
art forward today…

Promises and changes

Amazing.

Last year I promised myself to write regularly and keep this blog going with, hopefully, interesting and meaningful content. Here it is eight months into the year without a single new post. Hardly qualifies as either a commitment or a blog.

But, early in the year changes were afoot. Good changes, actually. I’ve finally learned that when life presents changes one can react in two basic ways: freak out or embrace the change. I’ve done both in my past and can tell you that embracing change is a far better option. It’s better to be rowing a boat in the ocean taking on the new than waiting for the current to take you somewhere as you ask yourself why you’re where you are.

I’ve also learned that everything I’ve done up to this point in my life has prepared me for what comes next. All of my experiences, decisions, training, study, travel have laid the groundwork for the next step in my life. This is the absolute truth.

So now I find myself renewed, recharged and bursting with energy for the new projects I have undertaken. It was time for a change, I’ve embraced it with both hands and, true to form, everything I’ve done up to this point in my life has prepared me for the work I’m doing today.

Life is good.

Between two worlds

I moved to shooting digitally a few years ago. That said, I still shoot “analog” or film for a couple of the processes that get me that certain image with that certain feel to it, including Polaroid emulsion transfers. To refresh your memory, emulsion transfers begin their lives as slides which I then copy to Polaroid film which is then transferred to watercolor paper, etc.

Recently Polaroid announced that it would cease production of its film at the end of 2008. (Not to digress too far, but I have to note I find it fascinating that Polaroid, who owned the category of instant photography, completely missed the transition to instant digital photography…) Not surprisingly, but disappointingly, their film is going away. Then just the other day I popped into the photo store where I’ve been buying slide mounts for several years to pick up some more, only to be informed that they no longer carry them due to lack of demand.

I am, as Andy Garcia said to George Clooney in one of the “Ocean’s” films, “an analog player in a digital world.”

It’s not that I don’t enjoy digital photography but rather it’s that some processes, and specifically the emulsion transfer process, involve a significant amount of handwork to render an image “just so”. While a digital photo can be “Photoshopped” to look like an emulsion transfer, it’s just not the same. First, copying the slide to Polaroid is absolute, as in there’s no possibility to crop an image, so all composition has to happen in the camera when the slide is shot. Nice creative constraints to have to work under.

Second, the transfer from slide to Polaroid alters the colors in unpredictable ways – sometimes enhancing them; other times washing them out – due to the nature of Polaroid film. Always interesting to see how the images come out. Finally, transferring the emulsion to watercolor paper is a delicate operation. If I’m too aggressive the gelatin will tear, destroying the image and requiring me to start all over again. As a result, while I may make multiple copies of a given image, they are all different from each other due to the fact they are all individually hand made and how the images lay out on the watercolor paper is necessarily different as they always wrinkle just a little bit differently.

We’ll see what happens. I’ve found slide mounts and can still buy slide film – for how much longer I don’t know. I’ve laid in a supply of Polaroid film that will get me through my most recent work and allow me to make a few very limited editions of some photos (3 max), but after that? I’m hoping someone will pick up the rights to produce the film, but if not, it’ll be time to set this equipment on the shelf next to my collection of other old photo equipment and find a new process to explore and play with.

Sad on the one hand, but exciting on the other.

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