Never say Never


(a gratuitous image to decorate, not illustrate, this entry)

I am going to digress from the “Looking at Photographs” series and enter into an area that I feel is important and related to Part 3 of that series. Part 2 of Looking at Photographs will be posted early next week.

A very long time ago, I adopted that phrase “Never say Never” as a personal philosophy. It wasn’t that there weren’t things that I wanted to avoid but what I felt was that if we take the never posture, we, maybe, drop our guard. I had actually experienced this myself and had certainly seen it in the wider world, where powerful people preached one set of values and then were arrested or ruined by doing the things they preached against! But, on a less serious level, it also just puts us in a box if we later changed our mind—it can cut off possibilities.

Even after I adopted this, I caught myself suggesting one “Never” and then doing it! Well, it wasn’t really a never, just an excluding sentiment. When I lived in southern California, before I moved to Portland, I had been traveling around the country quite a bit for work. I love discovering new places—and always took my camera even though in those days I still had a day job. But after repeated trips to a couple of states, I made the statement to many that they were “the last places on earth that I would ever live”. One of those was Texas—whoops! What we find is that our “world view” can change when circumstances change. I found a compelling reason to move there and actually am enjoying it (at least it is Sunny all year!).

On the other hand, I guess we could consider that as prophetic, as with time and circumstance, who knows, Texas might be “the last place I will ever live”!

But, back to photography and creative considerations.

I think one of the most damaging statements one can make in a creative environment is that one should “never” do something. I also think generalized “should do’s” can be problematic, but we will get to that tomorrow in another post.

For other reasons, I actually researched photographic and art instructive literature back into the 1700’s (photography not quite so far back!) and while I found suggestions on things to do in some types of literature, I certainly don’t remember any “Never” statements.

My post tomorrow will get into what I am calling “a tale of two worlds” with regards to photographic education, where I will suggest that guidelines have been around for a long time. What I have discovered, though, is that with the growth of the interest in photography–especially in the last 10 years, that these guidelines have become much more restrictive and codified and migrated from suggestions to consider to RULES.

And to the point, there are starting to be more and more Never statements coming into the vernacular. Listening to a video tutorial recently, presented by a major equipment supplier, the presenter came right out and said “Never put your horizon in the center” and gave no quarter. And while centering your horizon might not work at times, it certainly can “when it does”. In my last entry here I, in fact, posted an image where the horizon was in the middle of the image (link to a larger version here ) and I think you will agree that it is a pretty successful image. Hiroshi Sugimoto did an entire series of seascapes where he did this—He even marked the ground glass to be sure they were perfectly centered. I saw the work at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington DC and it knock my socks off! (not so much my wife but not because the horizon was centered, tastes vary!)

In another such video, a well credentialed photographer presented a lot of things he “never” did—in the context of instructing others—however he had a sense of humor about it, posting images where he had actually done those things and tagging his “never” statement with “unless I decide to do it”. I wasn’t crazy about the Never statements but at least he acknowledged how they were also a bit preposterous.

The strangest one I read was in a book on photography composition, “Never compose an image that reads from right to left”. I don’t know, but I think people are visually ambidextrous or should I say “ambivisual”. And I dare say, that there are countries that don’t read from left to right or front to back for that matter. Let’s get a grip!  Successful images don’t come in one size or direction.

The point is that “Never” is a bit ludicrous when it comes to creative endeavors. We should always be looking to solve our visual problems to effectively communicate our vision without concern for do’s or don’ts—what works, works. There is certainly no room for “Never” in creative endeavors.


Note: The closest thing to a “never” in photography might be don’t drink the darkroom chemicals unless you don’t value your health. But then, there is one that is healthy in one version and actually done by a lot of people, including my wife. The black and white “stop bath” is acetic acid and water. Vinegar is essentially acetic acid and, as such, white vinegar is often substituted for commercially available solutions made for photography. But I certainly would not recommend drinking it after a darkroom session! Vinegar and water does have some health benefits while maybe white vinegar wouldn’t be the best choice–my wife uses Apple Cider Vinegar.


On Being Greedy


Image created at Pt Lobos State Reserve


While I was writing my last entry here I remembered a story, related by Minor White, that I had read a long time ago that seemed to be related to our learning to slow down and respond to what we see instead of chasing our expectations. In this case, it really has to do with the phenomenon that occurs when we get overwhelmed by the newness and wonder or exotic nature of a new place. I will relate the rest of the story later, however it was this particular sentence that I thought was the most profound:

“He made us leave our cameras in the car so we could see and feel instead of getting lost in greediness.”

As I remembered this story, I also remembered my first trip to the desert southwest back in 1980, about a year and a half after I started photographing. Although I had spent a lot of time in the California desert over the years, nothing had prepared me for what I saw when, while still on the freeway, I saw my first red rock cliffs.

Back in those days, there was no internet to explore for information on your destinations and while I really hadn’t done much research, I certainly had seen many photos from the National Parks in that area.

But, as I said, nothing prepared me for what I saw when I saw those cliffs, I wanted to slam on the brakes right there on the highway’s shoulder and take pictures of it all. My body felt electrified and stayed that way for several days as we visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon. I had the feeling I wanted to photograph everything and yet it was hard to photograph anything because as soon as I framed one, I saw another better one even before I clicked the shutter. I ended up shooting almost every nook and cranny—and I was paying for film and processing in those days! I don’t think I made one decent image on that trip nor do I remember much of it or anything I did photograph for that matter. I had gotten lost in that greediness Minor White suggested.

But it is really more than just greediness, it is really just that our senses are so stimulated by whatever has presented itself to us, that we get sensory overload. When I spend a day in a great museum, I can actually feel that same electrifying sensation growing within me as I ponder those wonderful works of art. I have even heard of people passing out after visiting some of the great museums and cultural sites in Europe. In such cases, I have to retreat and allow things to calm down inside, which generally means getting someplace quiet where I can let the inspirations of the day percolate.

When we are photographing and start to feel this way, we need to find ways to allow ourselves to slow down and get past the “exoticism” of that new place. Being so enamored can overwhelm and blind us to the substance before us, as did those red rock canyons for me. We need to find a way to ground ourselves and allow ourselves to really see what is there before we start to photograph.

Minor White’s story took place at Point Lobos, an incredibly beautiful and wondrous place on the California Coast. Although I haven’t heard it mention much these days, Point Lobos is one of the most iconic locations for those West Coast Landscape photographers we all admire–Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Minor White, Wynn Bullock etc.  On this occasion, Edward Weston had taken White and several others there on a workshop and he knew the power of the place and how it could overwhelm. The full story related by White follows:

“Weston toured us around Lobos after the rain cleared. He made us leave our cameras in the car so we could see and feel instead of getting lost in greediness. On one of the fingers of landholding the heaving fingers of the sea the sun broke golden through a cloud! “I have made hundreds of photographs here at Lobos. It’s like a big lumber pile or lumberyard. I have barely touched the surface.” Then after a long, long silence came the gift, “Go make your own scratch.”

So, consider allowing yourself to settle down and see and feel your surroundings before you pick up that camera—then, you will be more grounded and can go make your own scratch.

“Looking For” vs “Finding”

"Found" this hidden canyon in unlikely place whiile following the tracks

“Found” this hidden canyon in unlikely place while following the tracks

It’s that time of year! The weather is starting to get warmer and we start to think about our vacations/ photo trips for the year. Part of the fun of all of this is the planning and research and the resultant anticipation and excitement—and maybe less fun: the development of expectations. What I want to do here is to present something I found to be a very productive mental framework for getting the most from one’s outings.

In my own experience one of the most counter productive elements in photography is the presence of expectations. This could manifest itself in the simple, straight forward feeling that you need to make good photographs and/or, especially early on, the need to make specific photographs. Examples of this latter concept might be the need to get that shot of Half Dome when you visit Yosemite or the Eiffel Tower when you visit Paris—and at that Right Time with that Right Light!  And, I would expect that the list of must shoots will be longer than just that one!

The problem with expectations is that they can create a great deal of anxiety within us and if we are traveling with others, frustration for all. We will tend to only think of running here or there to fill our shot list. Or if we haven’t “seen” those good shots yet, we start to feel we should be looking for them at all times as time’s ticking away—tensions just build up inside of us and our seeing actually starts to become more muddled.

I don’t know that we ever totally get rid of expectation, however, it can certainly be subdued if we move away from the sense of “Looking For” photographs to one of just “Finding” them.

Now, we could certainly debate the nuance of those two terms but I’d like to suggest a specific difference between these two that I found to be very productive. That is that the act of “Looking For” something is generally tied to a sense of knowing. We tend to set out to look for things we know and want to find. There is a specificity to the act and that specificity acts as a filter that, to some degree, eliminates the things from our awareness that don’t fit into that specific knowledge or goal.

For example, if I have lost a gold ring and set off to look for it I am not paying too much attention large objects, soft objects or small objects that don’t have the color or shape of the lost ring. Essentially, I pretty much ignore those objects that don’t fit into my sense of “gold ring” and very specifically “that gold ring”.

I would suggest that when we go out to photograph a similar phenomenon will often take place, but maybe in a more subconscious or covert way. If we decide to go shoot on the street or in the landscape or studio or Yosemite or the US Southwest, we may already have a rather specific idea of what that means for us photographically, maybe even those specific shots we are looking for. The mental filters that materialize can often be consuming in that we end up not seeing what presents itself to us and which may actually transcend our “goal”.

What often happens is that those “filters” or expectations cause us to become frustrated. We rush to a vantage point at that “right time” to get that shot we covet only to somehow arrive late or the weather/light we visualized for the shot doesn’t materialize—maybe even worse, we sit and wait for hours and nothing happens as we expected! I experienced this quite a bit when I was just starting out and then remembered that on my way to that destination, I passed something that I even noticed might have made a good photograph in my effort to get THAT good photograph I had started out to get. Who knows how many I may not have noticed because they didn’t fall within my expectations for what an image I was interested in looked like.

Accidentally found when I stopped along a dirt road and walked down what appeared to be a normal wash.

Accidentally found when I stopped along a dirt road and walked down what appeared to be a normal wash.

On the other hand, if we can release these tendencies then maybe we might allow ourselves the opportunity to see and “find” those things that present themselves to us. Things we had no awareness of or which might even be “out-of-place” but which intersect with our path. We might turn away from looking for our intended subject and see what is right there before us.

Now, I don’t have any notion that writing this is going instantly solve anyone’s problem with expectation or change the way they do things. Some of this is just part of the “rights of passage” a photographer will go through. On the other hand, after 37 years, I still deal with certain types of expectation but my awareness of their existence helps me move past it. Just being aware of it is how we can start to learn how to move past it.

When he was little, I would take my son on Saturday photo trips to give my wife a break and have some alone time with him as well. I’ll never forget a comment he made when he was about 4 (now 31), we were driving through the mountains to the central desert of Oregon. He asked me where we were going, I said to find some photographs, he said “how can you find photographs if you don’t stop the car?”.

Overall, what I continue to find is that if I just stop I will find things I didn’t know existed and wasn’t looking–often these will also create the best images.

I don’t suggest that there aren’t times we need or want to look for things only that we should be aware of the difference and mechanisms that might be at work when we go “Looking For” instead of allowing ourselves to relax and “find”.


One of my “finds” in Yosemite walking through where there were no paths

Please feel free to add your experience or thoughts on this subject in the comments.  I love hearing about others experiences.

The Idea: Part 3

4584171-Waterpocket-WashIn part I, we discussed how idea was the basis for every photograph and in Part 2, we looked at the source of those ideas, our Core. In Part 3, I want to explore how the idea works in the creation of a photograph beyond just the immediate response.

I think that most of us will recognize that as we progress with our photography, our choices as to what we photograph start to become more selective. While there might be several reasons for this, one of the primary factors is that we are developing a system of priorities as to what we find of interest to photograph. Another way of saying this might be that we are finding some things more important to us than others. We are beginning to refine our idea of what photography is for us and what we want it to express to others.

As an example of what I mean here is that maybe someone interested in street photography might decide they are most interested in social issues while for another it might be odd and humorous juxtapositions. One landscape photographer might be interested in the grandeur of nature while another the environment. These same concerns might translate across genres but one might also develop criteria that are more universal in nature. The point is that we end up developing a framework from which we photograph and then evaluate what we photographed. And, depending on our criteria, our photographs will look different from those who are working with different concerns/ideas even if we shoot the same things.

This refinement of our idea about photography will vary in its depth as to how personal and specific it becomes. We each find a balance that works for us and the way photography fits into our lives. It should also be recognized that this is a process and we might find that our criteria develop and modify over time.

As mentioned above, how personal and unique those things of meaning are will be part of what determines how our photographs look and maybe even how well others respond to them. The more personal our criteria and ideas, the less likely others will immediately understand our images. This is the reason that we often will look at an artist’s work and not connect with or understand what they are doing. This could be a topic for an entire book, however, the important thing here is that we recognize that as photographer/artists we will develop a framework, one with a hierarchy of considerations, for determining what a meaningful photograph is for us. It should be noted here that this doesn’t preclude us from creating a variety of images and ones that don’t fit into this framework. It is just that those that are more important and rewarding for us will generally fall within the criteria we have developed for ourselves.

One of the reasons that I introduced Henry Wessel and Jeff Wall is that while both are well-respected photographers we have also heard, in their own words, how different their approaches to creating a photograph are. This will give us a look into how this framework of meaning can work in different ways within the creative process. Wessel works in a more “animalistic” responsive way to what he sees whereas Wall suggests that while he might see something of interest, he doesn’t photograph it but walks away to contemplate the photograph he will later make to recreate what he saw. My suggestion here is that these two approaches are more similar than it might appear on first glance. Both rely on a strong, personal framework of what is meaningful in a photograph. (The videos where they express there ways of working, in case you missed them, are here:  Henry WesselJeff Wall)

So, the first thing we should recognize from their description of their process is that both create photographs due to their responses to a visual stimulus—a response seeded in their framework of meaning. It might be easy to see this in Wessel, as there is the direct response of lifting the camera and shooting. But isn’t it also a direct response to notice and take note/remember/catalog the idea? Both will return from an outing with things they need to edit and evaluate. Wall evaluates the ideas he has captured for creating photographs in the future while Wessel evaluates the ideas he captured in his photographs—both are determining if those ideas are worth pursuing to the next step. Neither is guaranteed that any image will ultimately be successful although Wessel is certainly closer to that determination. As Wall later creates his photograph, he will revisit all of these same steps.

How each of their photographs look and what ideas that they convey are due to the fact that both of these photographers have highly personal views of what is meaningful to them and what they want to express through their photographs. It is important to understand here that it isn’t a matter of this framework determining the specific meaning of an individual photograph but rather that the photograph’s meaning measures up to the standard set by that framework.

When I am photographing for myself I work more like Wessel, as do most of the photographers I know. Creating an image on a commercial assignment is more like working as Wall does, although commercially the idea or parameters for the photograph are generated externally.  (But it should be recognized that the reason an art director or designer will hire someone from across the country or world is because of that photographer’s artistic sensibilities, which are a direct result of the framework of meaning they have developed. There would be no reason to look beyond one’s own city if all photographers, all other things being equal, looked at things in the same way.)

My own development of what is meaningful and thus my framework of meaning came largely through my digging more deeply into what the possibilities in photography were as well as my interests before I ever picked up a camera. When I started to photograph in the late 70’s, I merely wanted to document the wonderful things I saw when I was backpacking. But the first framework for my photographs was simply one dominated by the process of making an image. I shot everything and was amazed at my creations! Eventually, my framework morphed back into the more specific interest in the grand landscape and the beauty of the natural environment that made me buy the camera in the first place. But this also came after searching out different ideas, such as wildlife photography etc., which I determined didn’t hold as great an importance or interest to me. After some time pursuing the grand landscape, I felt that I needed to do more and use photography as a deeper form of self-expression. This was in response to things already in my Core but was also stimulated by a greater awareness of what others were doing with art and photography as well as various things I was reading at the time. My framework became more in line with the tradition of the Equivalent and seeking images that were more metaphoric than documentary. Of course, I developed my own sense of what this meant as I didn’t seek out images that were equivalents of my emotions but rather ones that were more contemplative and maybe less resolved as disconnects from reality or what the subject was.

So, when I go out to photograph, the types of things that I respond to generally come from that well-defined system of what is meaningful to me in an image, my reason for photographing. When I am working on a series, I am generally drawing on those same criteria, however, I may overlay some additional criteria when determining which images will work or not in that series. Generally, that is some more specific idea that I wanted to explore and the work needs to support that idea to be included in that body of work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I wont or can’t create images that don’t fully meet this more foundational set of criteria but they might meet the need or criteria that the specific photograph was intended to fill. Shooting commercially, this might be the client’s need. For personal work, I might just want to document something that I see without further consideration. There might also be the occasion where I see something that sparks an idea that may be outside of what I might normally consider as important. If I find there is merit in that new idea, then I will adjust my criteria for what is a successful photograph for that body of work although that criteria will probably share much with my more foundational set.

This might all raise the question as to what your framework of meaning is and why is it what it is. The depth of that framework, how personal and individual it is, will largely be a function of where photography fits into your life as well as how you use it-your purpose or reason for photographing.

This is certainly something we can ponder but also might open new ways for us to look at others work, especially the work of others that we don’t understand or respond to immediately. Maybe they are working in a realm we aren’t aware of or have been exposed to before.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives on this, so feel free to leave a comment.

Success Rate: an Irrelevant Measurement


Never thought this would work

After a discussion on choosing the right equipment I thought that it might be appropriate to look at how successful we are in creating the images we attempt.

I will often hear people talk about their “success rate” when they are out shooting, referring to it as some measure as to where they are in their journey into photography. To some extent it might be but maybe not in the way we would think!

For instance, when we are just starting out we will often be proud of creating something that merely “turned out”. I know that when I started I shot all slide film and was excited about almost everything—and I bored lots of family and friends with “unedited” slide shows of my latest. My success rate was nearly 100%.

As we progress and get more serious about what we are doing, we begin to realize that maybe our images aren’t all that great. We’ve gotten a bit of perspective on our work and are developing more sophisticated standards. Our success rate at this point might vacillate quite a bit as we try to negotiate our ego and our reality.

For most of us this stage of development means a period where we focus more on some external standard for our technical and aesthetic accomplishments—composition, exposure and maybe even an approach to our work that we see in other’s work. We are in that stage of emulation and trying to make images as “good as” those we look up to in the genre we are attempting.

As we pursue this phase of our development, we will probably start to generate more “successful” images both as to aesthetic appeal and as to our percentage of keepers. This happens because we are seeking out scenes and conditions that we know will make good photographs and often the exact ones we have seen done so well by others. This gives us something to directly gauge our success, something tangible and more objective to work towards and achieve.

This is a very important step in our development because we need to gain a level of confidence in our work and our ability to create successful images. This will allow us to photograph more freely and search out our own vision of the world. We don’t want to be worrying about whether we know “how” to make a photograph but be doing it without reservation.

This is the point where things get very complicated when it comes to success rate or the idea of “keepers”. Of course, it is complicated because not everyone has the same goals or purpose for making photographs.

My own thought is that this isn’t really something we should worry about and let it just take care of itself. But if we are worrying about it, then we should analyze the problem.

A high success rate without feeling good about the work is probably a sign that you are just shooting things you know will be good photographs. You aren’t pushing yourself like you know you should or really would like to be doing. This might be the result of wanting to please someone else or maybe just not having found your own path yet.

A low success rate is probably more normal but is likely to be what bothers people the most—often because someone else suggests how high theirs is and we don’t really know if that is good or not. As I said, everyone has different reasons for shooting and uses for their images. But I would generally be more worried about having a high percentage than a low one if it isn’t low primarily due to technical failures—which then is good, direct feedback as to what you need to work on.

My reason for saying this is that if we want to progress, we should be challenging our skills, both the technical and the aesthetic. By shooting a scene we aren’t sure how to solve, regardless of the reason, we will expand our knowledge whether it worked or not.

Another factor in favor of a low success rate is just allowing ourselves to follow our instincts. In the first video presented in the Henry Wessel post here, he suggests allowing ourselves to respond more animalistically, before we have time to think. I would suggest that often we don’t just make more common photos when we start to think but that we often will talk ourselves right out of making the exposure at all. Some of my best images were ones I was the most indifferent to when I made them—I was working beyond my conscious level and only recognized that later—sometimes that can be years later!

Maybe the most important factor in favor of a lower success rate is just becoming more discriminating in what we choose to show others. Often our photos aren’t really failures, they just don’t really measure up to what we are capable of nor do they say what we wanted them to convey. They might be “good enough” but is that actually good enough?

Bottom line, I don’t think success rate is actually something that is important in and of itself. What is important is to constantly evaluate what we are doing and where it is we want to go—are we moving in that direction?

Quotes to Ponder: #0004

“For technical data—
the camera was faithfully used.”

~ Minor White

Lotus #786One of the things we tend to hear about and discuss the most is our equipment.  Which camera, lens, tripod etc should we be using or getting?

On Tuesday, I will present what I believe–and am confident you will agree (at least in time)–is the definitive answer to this question.

See you Tuesday!

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

Quotes to Ponder: #0002

“It’s not what you look at that matters,

it’s what you see”

~Henry David Thoreau

Honestly, I don’t expect to make a posting each day, but when I ran across this quote I just thought it fit so well with the last post and where we will be going when we get to The Idea: Part 2.

In the last post, I talked about responding to what we see and I think it is important to remember that we don’t all see things the same way.  This isn’t just with more abstract ideas, but we often don’t interpret what we see visually in the same way as another.  In fact, we often don’t even see something that the person standing right next to us might get very excited about.  This whole mechanism is very human and is something we are going to probably talk about a lot as we go along–it is certainly something worth thinking about as photographers–or even just as mere human beings!

*       *       *

(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)