Beginner's Eyes. Getting them back.

I am sad that I learned so much about the plumbing of photography because my desire to make technically perfect images has certainly gone a long way toward beating up the part of my brain that just wanted to look at stuff and go, "Hey! They would be neat.  Let's just press the button."

There always comes a time when you have to sort through stuff and file things away deeper and deeper into the warehouse of treasures to make room for the newer treasures.  You sort through in case you missed a few gems that need to be put into more convenient storage (metaphorically speaking).  And in this process you invariably come across things that disquiet your own self image.  Take for instance the concepts of "mastery".  I took this photo above in 1978 before I knew anything about photography.  I lined up the "stick-with-the-lollypop" (match needle metering)  in the finder of a Canon TX camera and pushed the button.  And then I learned how to take pictures.  But, we live in a society that loves to dissect and quantify.  In some sense our modern culture group-thinks that all phenomena can be explained if only we can subject it to a rigorous enough bisection, followed by a meticulous calculation of the components.

Our prevailing idea of mastery is to know ALL the technical steps that can be known for completing a project with "best practices".  That requires turbo-charging the math and analytical side of your brain.  But the practice is fraught with all kinds of peril.  The math brain is a very vicious hoodlum in many regards.  But mostly because he believes that everything can be reduced to a series of memorized formulae.  Eventually you will know all the reasons why every scene you come across is "compromised" and unable to be "effectively" shot and made "perfect".  You begin only to photograph scenes that can be shoehorned into the narrow definition of perfection.  At some point your technical focus becomes your reality.  You cease to see things outside the filter of this reality.  You have now gained technical master while atrophying the part of your brain that was responsible for recognizing the subjects that made you feel happy and engaged.  Engaged not because you could capture them perfectly but because you would enjoy the experience of visually encountering them even if a camera were not involved.

At this point the technical considerations become a mental straightjacket binding your creative limbs and preventing you from hurting yourself by "having to" endure the possibility of a failed photo.  How sad.  At that point you will have lost your "beginner's eyes" and the very thrill that compelled you to be a photographer in the first place.

Cameras like the Lomo are an attempt to short circuit technical thinking and just react.  But we don't really need to degrade our cameras to return to the pure joy of photography.  We only need to respond emotionally to what's in front of the camera and to click with whatever camera we have in hand.  Sometimes I am more attracted to the failed frame than the traditional keeper.

You may be more enlightened than me.  This issue may not come up for you.  But if you are a technical/research/process/workflow/measurement kind of guy chances are you've got it so bad you can't even see it.  You can work on getting back to an unguarded or technically un-nuanced  reaction to images or you can accept that compulsive reduction is part of your gestalt and just enjoy the process as you enjoy it and ignore my own self-examination.

I do know one thing.  I liked the energy in the  photos I took years ago.  A lot.  It made up for the glitches.


Danny Chatham said...

Me too!

robert e said...

If I learned anything from "Zen and the Art of Archery", it is that technical mastery is an unavoidable but intermediate step to true mastery, which resembles the intuitive, fearless joy of the ignorant beginner. Keep going.

Dave Jenkins said...

Paralysis by analysis, a friend of mine calls it.

SS Buchanan said...

One of the reasons I like to use the eTTL functions of modern flashes is for similar reasons - while the technicalities of setting the flash power is all easy, its a distraction that sometimes it's nice to circumvent.

Bill said...

I agree with Danny, "Me too!" This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. It seems I forgot how to have fun with photography. It is something I have started to work on again.
Thanks for the great posts Kirk.

robert e said...

Sorry it is "Zen In the Art of Archery", not "Zen and..."

The author, Eugen Herrigel, does tell the exceptional story of a royal guard who was judged a fencing master before receiving any technical training. That was because after many years of concerted grappling with the problem of death, the guard had lost his fear of it, which, according to his fencing master, Tajima-no-kami, was one of the secrets of swordsmanship.

Steve Burns said...

"...I liked the energy in the photos I took years ago. A lot. It made up for the glitches."

I have a friend that likes to use the word "impeccable" often when describing photography. The one thing that he is ends up missing at times is the life, or the energy in an image that you have so eloquently pointed out in your post.

Geir said...

This is great, and very true. This last term I've learned that the fire dies in my students if we spend too much time on technicalities, and too little on creating spaces for having photo fun.
They want to know the know-how, but when they get it, it almost as a rule works against them.