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Friday, April 17, 2015

Just Wandering Around

As a little followup to this earlier piece.

Lots of photographers seem to wander around, looking for pictures. I'm not saying that this sort of spontaneous shooting is a bad idea. It happens that I am not very good at it, for reasons I will elucidate shortly.

Some very very good photographers, if you watched them work, would appear to be wandering aimlessly. Every now and then, the camera rises to the working position; click; click; move; click and so on. What appears to be going on is that the photographer has seen a potential photograph, and shoots it.

I think this is a misconception.

What has happened is that the photographer has seen something to which he or she has some reaction, which invokes a feeling, or that the photographer otherwise feels could be the basis upon which a photograph could be made. Then the photographer tries to make that photograph.

The distinction is subtle but, I think, important.

NOT: That waterfall would make a great picture.

BUT: I love that waterfall, I love the way it sounds. I want to make a photograph of that love.

This sounds fatuous and silly, and surely many photographers don't think this sort of rubbish consciously. The two different mental processes could happen in a moment, or over weeks. You can't tell by watching which it is, but you often can tell looking at the pictures.

Avedon said that he had to fall in love with his subjects. Adams said that how you feel about the scene is vitally important and must be shown. Cartier-Bresson told us about the moment when the picture is present and is The Picture that illustrates what is there. And on and on.

Even Winogrand told us that he photographs things to see what they look like photographed -- he's making a vital distinction here. It is not that the thing he shoots is obviously a good picture. He doesn't know until he sees the photograph.

Why can't I do it? I'm too slow. I can't fall in love with the scene and shoot it in a single fluid motion. Just doesn't work that way.

In any case, every photographer who's made any important pictures seems to tell us something of the same thing: you're not seeing a thing and then photographing that thing.

And yet, the internet is cluttered with photographs of things. What a pretty sunset/waterfall/mountain/child. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, we might use the word "snapshot" appropriately here, and I have long been on the record as being un-opposed to snapshots.

The difficulty is in conflating these things with actual photographs with meaning and power. If you take a super high-resolution snapshot of a sunset, and then lovingly caress it in photoshop for hours and hours, it's not going to somehow acquire meaning and power. It will always be a snap of a beautiful sunset.

And that is OK. Just don't confuse it with something more.

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