For many of us old enough to remember the general interest magazines like Life Magazine and Look Magazine; and certainly National Geographic Magazine, the look that "locked" us was the gorgeous and incredibly well executed "available light" imagery. Little wonder that most of us still lust for cameras like Leica rangefinders with their fast sharp prime optics. To work back in that milieu required physical talent as opposed to technical talent. One had to be able to recognize and respond to good light and bad light with flawless technique. If you worked with the ISO 200 speed film of the day you learned to stand still and calm the tremors of human existence in a way that image stabilization and ultra high ISO sensitivities in digital cameras don't really demand. (Not to worry, this is not a rant about digital versus film.....)
I think the look hooked us for several reasons: 1. The shots weren't set up. No one needed to show up with an army of assistants and cases full of lights and stands in order to do their work. That meant the photographer blended in and was not part of the production. Kind of reversing the Heisenberg theory of affective subliminal interaction. No "Heisenberg Compensator" was necessary. Subject reactions, unfettered by the persistent visual patter of flashes, was more real, less self conscious. 2. The need for "speed" in order to hand hold cameras led to the design, production and wide spread use of really fast lenses. Some of which are still competitive with the best on offer from Canon and Nikon. Leica had the f1 Noctilux. Canon had a 50mm f (point) .9 lens. Even my old Olympus Pen FT sported a 60mm 1.5 lens. Now we get excited about a constant aperture f2.8 zoom? Really? The upshot of the fast lenses is a wonderfully thin zone of focus that makes the in focus subject the nexus of all attention and intention. 3. The images weren't subjected to endless iterations of post production. Nothing existed to save a mediocre shot or a shot that just lacked intrinsic interest.
I loved opening up a fresh copy of Life Magazine. Not all the images were wonderful, compelling or even midly interesting but the ones that were had the power to rivet young eyes for ages.
The world has changed. People entering photography now feel the overarching desire or need to imprint a personal style on every image they shoot so many settle on a style that is often a hodge podge of imitative steals and compulsively imprint that style on every frame they shoot. The tools have become more of a message than the message itself.
In the last month I've pushed myself to up my game. To handhold better, to see better and to improve the craft. You'll think I'm nuts (and maybe many of your already do) but I've given up a 25 year coffee habit in the quest to handhold better and to have the patience to see stuff worth handholding a camera for. I'm meditating in hopes of getting clearer and clearer about what I want to photograph and why. And I'm getting down right reductivist about the gear I want to shoot with.
I figure that with a D700 and a 50mm 1.1.2 and a fast 85mm I should be able to do good, compelling people work at a higher level than I would if everything were lit. And I do find that I'm having to watch the light with a patience I never did before.
Even though part of my livelihood depends on selling books about using lights I'll be the first to admit that some subjects don't need to be lit. They repulse the attempt. Nothing beats perfect light and nature makes a lot of it.
The above shot was done for a hospital group and is nothing much. But it catches my eye because of its candid nature and the perfect balance of light and contrast. It reminds me that sometimes getting even more MINIMAL garners maximum results.
As I was thinking about our society's collective compulsion to embellish reality and photographers' compulsion to use light as style I came across a verse in the good ole Tao Ching (Stephen Mitchell Translation) that reads:
Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about other people's approval and you will be their prisoner.Do your work, then step back.The only path to serenity.