5.25.2017

Re-connecting with photography. It's hard to separate the gear hysteria from the practice.


Eeyore's Birthday Party, 2017. Austin, Texas

There's something magical and fun and immersive about photography. While you glide through the streets of your city, or slip through the landscape of more rural environs, you are constantly seeing and capturing things from a unique point of view, a personal perspective, an aesthetic that's a reflection of your own experiences. Some of the personal images I take are just for me while others fall into the category of images I want to use to help me share a vision with an audience.

In our culture (U.S.A.) it seems selfish or indolent to leave your home just with the intention of taking photographs for yourself. The over-riding imperative seems to be that productivity is the most important measure and, "why the heck would you do anything that didn't have as it's primary motivation immediate profit?" That may be why so much of the photography we do is wrapped around the concept of "a walk." Or "a Photo Walk." If we intertwine the passion for our craft with the medically proven necessity to get more exercise we at least rescue a little bit of virtue from the time spent with a camera in our hands.

Lately I've come to think of my process of photography as having the same function as dreaming. It seems that our subconscious does most of its heavy lifting while we sleep; replaying the day's events or perceived slights to our self-fabricated sense of reality in order to help some quadrant of our brains make sense of the things we experience. In one sense the dreams keep us healthy and safe but in another sense way help us figure out why we are what we are. Dreaming is almost always a working through of impressions, mixed with ideas.

Now, when I leave the house with a camera I think of the activity not so much being a rationale for play while living in a productivity-compulsive environment but more as a way to freeze and archive the things I see in order to make sense of them over time. To re-see them over time.

Riding in a car and looking out a window as we rush from place to place feels like tremendous visual overload. But walking with a camera in our hands allows us to control the amount and pacing of our visual experiences. We can stop and, with our cameras, experiment with angles, exposures, juxtapositions of objects, and movement. If we leash our desire to over-think our process and just let our intuition and sense of playfulness take charge we can sometimes come home with images that are both in our style but also somewhat like a gift-wrapped surprise, one that we know we bought but are unwrapping and re-examining in the quiet of our own comfortable space.

One thing that makes a contemplative approach to the process of photograph seem comfortable and fluid is our reflexive ideas about just how important it may be to have just the right gear. There is something about our left brain celebrating culture that gives priority to any part of a process that can be measured or dissected. No where is this more evident than in any intersection of art/craft and technology. We have a cultural tendency to STEM stuff to death. (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). It's the byproduct of being told for decades that anyone without a technical specialty will die a cold, lonely death; mired in abject poverty.

This has given rise in my generational cohort to a group of photo practitioners who measure their own self-worth as potential artists by the depth and primacy of their toys. Over the last two decades I have been as guilty of this as anyone else. And as much of victim of this kind of thinking as anyone else. I've spent so much time "researching" the gear and commensurately less time actually using it.

I think this is because it's much easier to have opinions about what constitutes a good interface than it is to pursue the actual taking of photographs. We love the buzz words that make us appear to be skilled technical experts but it comes at the expense of not really immersing ourselves into the art we profess to love.  It's tough in any enterprise to serve two masters but it is especially so in the world of creating subjective visual work. It's rare that, in a group of similarly priced or specified cameras, one tool will be profoundly better than another. But it's the deep dive into the tool; even after we have purchased and acquired it, that puts up roadblocks to creativity because it robs us of our time; and our belief in our own powers. We need to give more respect to the role paid by our ability to "see" and bring home interesting work while we need to look at our tools as just tools instead of magic charms that will bring us luck.

I have some good tools. Statistically, the best of them is the Sony A7rii. But it's not my favorite tool, or even one I pick up at all for the pleasure of shooting. I bought it to ameliorate my own sense (fear) that I needed to have a camera with a high degree of specification to satisfy my clients and make my living. But I'm drawn to much different cameras when I shoot for myself. It's all a bit crazy. But when I am enjoying the scenery the camera I have in my hand becomes less and less significant. After a while it becomes transparent and I work with what I have. It's almost always more than enough.


2 comments:

Stephen Emmons said...

I love your statement "to re-see them over time." I find that as I come back to photos -- especially of my children but also of times/places -- that I am "re-seeing" them from new perspectives. Older, balder, greying perspectives. Oh well... I think it is one thing that draws me to the fine photos of your son that you post now and then.

We all need what Robin Wong calls "shutter therapy" from time to time.
And we STEM stuff to death at the university, too.

Ray said...

He says "It's almost always more than enough."

And I say "How dare he insinuate the second best camera or lens on the planet might be good enough for my vacation snapshots?"