Monday, February 24, 2014

A Clear Concept

As regular readers will surely have deduced, I am a big fan of having a clear concept, by which I mean a clearly imagined subject, rendering, and idea.

It occurred to me yesterday that my biggest single forward stride is simply that I no longer press the shutter button without having a pretty clear concept in mind. That's not quite true, of course. I take lots of pictures of my kids, and I take pictures as part of the preliminaries of finding a concept, and so on. But it is accurate to say that I don't press the shutter button "in anger" or one might say "with artistic intent" without having a clear concept in mind.

A couple days ago I burned off a couple exposures of a pretty girl who works at a local coffee shop. For some time I'd been toying with the idea of asking her to duplicate Johnny Cash's iconic photograph, in which he is grimacing at the camera, arm and middle finger extended. I don't know why this felt right, but it did. The other day I got around to asking her, we took a couple pictures, it was good. The result is a pretty good picture I'm not going to share with you. Sorry. But it's pretty good.

So what's the point? The point is that I didn't take pictures of any of the other pretty people there. I want to photograph all the pretty girls, of course. Doesn't everyone? The world, however, does not need more generic pictures of generically pretty girls. There are plenty of GWACs out there shooting those by the gross, every single day. Not my thing at all.

So I shot this girl, because I had a concept. It's a picture of a pretty girl, but it's also quite a bit more.

My concept did not survive intact. My concept was a duplicate of the Cash picture, and that did not happen. What happened was something better, more honest, and more interesting. The girl did her own take on it. Her body language is completely different, and much more her than Cash, and that is a good thing. I am delighted that my concept had to evolve, it was forced to grow up, and to become something better.

An oft-quoted remark attributed to Ansel Adams: "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept". It's true. But it's usually misused wildly.

In the first place it usually is used to mean "Your picture(s) suck" and is quoted by somebody who's never had a clear concept in his (rarely, her) life, and has certainly never executed a clear concept of anything into a photograph. Unless, I suppose, you consider making poor copies of other people's pictures a clear concept.

In the second place, there is a planted axiom in it. Adams was very serious about promoting the narrative that he always had a clear concept of the final image, and that he then executed that final image, and the result was pretty much just as he had imagined it at the moment of pressing the shutter button. This is, I suspect, nonsense.

What is important is to have a concept up front, not that it is immutable and, ultimately, perfectly executed in the final print. I suspect strongly that there was a lot more serendipity in play in Adams' work than he let on. This is not a high bar -- his conceit was that there was no serendipity at all after the shutter press. I believe that he generally had a clear idea. I do not believe that the print is always a perfect reflection of that idea. Indeed, one need only inspect different prints of the same negative to see this. The man's concept changed at the enlarger, and that is just as it ought to be.

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