Home » Art » The Idea: Part 2

The Idea: Part 2

In Part 1, we explored the rationale behind the suggestion that every photograph starts with an idea. That even if we just make a quick snap of something, there was a reason for our taking the time and effort to do that and that we are, in fact, communicating something—an idea.

Once we understand that our images are about ideas, it makes it clear that our decisions, as to both technical and aesthetic considerations, should be made to maximize the clarity of our idea. If we don’t coordinate these things then we can end up with what Ansel Adams was referring to when he suggested a “sharp image of a fuzzy concept”!

Of course when we are beginning or even later on, we might just be trying out some technique and the idea contained within the photograph might be less important than our need to see how a technique works or doesn’t—or just how we get that technique to work. Trying out how things like shallow or deep depth of field are attained or allowing blur or stopping motion are important exercises. In these cases it is important to differentiate between the “idea” of testing something versus the creation of a meaningful photograph. Certainly, we can create a more meaningful photograph doing this, however, often the success is just in what we learned through the process.

In the quote I posted by Thoreau, he suggests that we don’t necessarily see what it is that we look at but maybe something else. Although he is most likely being a bit more philosophical, referring to how we interpret meaning (which should not be dismissed as unimportant in this discussion), there is a direct correlation to what we recognize visually as well. As I mentioned in that post, this can be the reason why we might not even notice something that the person right next to us gets excited about.  Even if we see the same thing, it may have a different meaning or significance to each of us.

I am sure that if you have gone out photographing with others you’ve noticed that although there might be some overlap in what each shoots, others will have seen and photographed things you didn’t. I know that when my wife and I are out shooting together we rarely come back having shot the same things—or even similar things for that matter.

Of course, we might also notice how when we do photograph the same things as others we might have interpreted the scene differently–although we might also note how often some of the most popular, well known places are photographed exactly the same way by, it seems, everybody!

A few years after I started photographing, I belonged to an informal group of photographers who all had met at various workshops with Ansel Adams and were all, primarily, landscape photographers.   We had regular meetings to critique each others prints and went on occasional field trips together.  At a print critique session following one such trip, five of us ended up presenting prints of the same part of a creek we had found at that site.  All of the images were different but by that time, I had started to move away from a more traditional interpretation of landscape and was more interested in metaphor and abstraction.  My image was quite a bit different than the others and reflected what was important to me.Stream, Devil's Punchbowl

Anais Nin put this idea a bit more directly when she suggests that “we don’t see things as they are, but as we are”. This is probably the most critical thing for us to recognize when it comes to our photographs or how we view the photographs of others or other forms of art.

What we photograph and how we interpret things tells us, and others, something about who we are. We reveal ourselves in what we create as well as how we interpret things.

For instance, that snapshot of me as a child in Part 1 suggests what was important to my mother.  While some of you might respond, with various amounts of enthusiasm, “what a cute little boy” –which I certainly was–others might suggest what a crappy, old, irrelevant snapshot, which is probably how I would react if it didn’t have all the emotional and contextual references that I connect with it. We’re just not all going to respond in the same way to everything, which is a good thing!

How we respond to things is directly drawn from what I will refer to as our Core and something that Stephen Shore refers to as our Mental Model in his book “The Nature of Photographs”*.  This Core is the sum of all of our life experiences including our upbringing, education and conditioning and how we responded and interpreted all of those things we were exposed to. This Core can be very different even between siblings who shared a great number of the same experiences. It defines who we are as people and how we think about the world.

CoreAs a visual person, I like to picture things in my mind and this “fuzzy ball” posted above is my, albeit imperfect, interpretation of how our Core might look.

At the center are those things that are most solid and stable and those that are the most difficult to change or dislodge. These might be our core values and ethics as well as other things we KNOW are absolutely true and which are most important to us. But even here, these things can change over time as we gain new insights and information. I think most of us can probably identify things that we were absolutely “sure” of when we were younger that we now think about, or look at, in a completely different way. The size of this solid area will vary with each person and personality.  Often, what resides in this area can make us reject or accept something without further question or analysis–for better or worse.

The more diffuse areas are those areas where things we have been exposed to or learned about are processed and stored. The more strongly we feel about these, the more solid or dense they become while the more diffuse areas might be things we are figuring out or which we have less conviction about.

This area might be where we hold observed current trends and might be the reason we would think it cool to photograph our food and post it to social media, if for no other reason.

What could be cooler than a pile of Texas BBQ and a table set for 4?

What could be cooler than a pile of Texas BBQ and a table set for 4?

As we learn something new or are exposed to alternative ways of thinking, they enter this area. At times, they might just float around without seeming to have any relevance to us or how we think. But then one day, some of these might become more relevant either because of new information we obtain or something we confront brings them into focus and they begin to make more sense to us. This can be a long process or a revelation.

This Core is not only the basis for how we respond and interpret things but it is also what we draw on as the source of our creativity. Creativity isn’t the application of a rote technique or rule but rather our ability to connect things—often disparate things—we have learned into a new form or way of responding. We will discuss creativity in depth later.

In Shore’s book, he suggests how as photographers we are exposed to a visual stimulus as we search out our photographs and that those visual stimuli interact with, and adjust, our Mental Model and that in turn modifies our perception which then interacts again with our Mental Model and further modifies our perception of things and so on—in essence, we learn and grow through the act of photographing.

My own experience is that everything we expose ourselves to will affect our Mental Model/Core and that our growth as photographers is not just through learning technical or aesthetic concerns in connection with our interests in photography but through exposing ourselves to other art, literature, music, movies etc. as well as just allowing for new experiences and exploring other ways of thinking about things—including photography. I know that for me, these were the activities–including much time investigating art/photography I didn’t understand–that affected my photography more than just learning how to make a photograph. This is my reason for this blog and the types of entries I make here.

In The Idea: Part 3, we will explore how Idea can work in various ways and on different levels in our photography. Later entries will also explore some of these concepts further, in different contexts and from different angles.

My next post here, on Thursday, will explore something more practical, the characteristics of light, the one we generally love to hate!

In the meantime, please feel free to leave and comments or questions.

You can find “The Idea: Part 3” here

or “The Idea: Part 1” here.

*This book by Stephen Shore is deceptively simple and can be read in a half hour or so. I have read it several times and it is one of those books that can reveal new things each time we read it and digest more of the concepts he presents.

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