11 August 2010

What Do We Shoot?

I look at a lot of photographs. It’s part of my job, and if that wasn’t enough pain, I do it in my off hours so I can tweet my favorites to my friends. Also, I study the masters of the art in a vain attempt to discover the secret of their magic. When one looks at a torrent of thousands and thousands of excellent photographs, some patterns and characteristics begin to takes shape. It appears to me that one of the characteristics that separate the sheep from the goats is in what we shoot. I don’t mean subject matter here, but rather, what it is in the mind of the photographer that triggers the snap of the shutter.

Amateurs and novices tend to shoot an idea in their heads. They don’t really shoot what they see. They have an idea, like “That’s a nice looking cow.” They point the camera in the general direction of the beast and trip the shutter. When they get home and look at their pictures, it’s a “fail” because the cow is just a small, dark lump in front of the sun surrounded by some telephone poles and half of Bubba’s pickup truck. They have responded to an idea with their camera without ever really looking at the scene, the light, the framing of the picture or anything else that might help to make the picture a good one. These pictures will usually have the subject in the dead center of the frame and will be too far away for an interesting photograph.

Advanced hobbyists and many professionals have gotten past this problem. They have learned to look at the light and to seek interesting forms. They have learned to frame their photos for greater interest. They have mastered their cameras, and are not worried about remembering how to operate the device. They shoot what they see. This is a good thing, and it makes for quality photography. I would hazard the guess that most of us are in this range of the spectrum: we have learned the rules and the devices; we’ve learned to look at the subject, and we can reliably produce decent pictures.

The place that we all really want to be is beyond technical competence. We want to shoot a memorable photograph. We want to shoot that one frame that somehow rises above the millions of other exposures to become iconic. We want to shoot Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “Kiss.” We want to shoot Ansel Adam’s “Moonrise, Hernadez” or Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl.” I’m sure everyone has their own list of “memorable” photos, and these are just a few of mine. It appears to me that the truly memorable photos have a characteristic that is beyond just idea and technical competence. To my eye, and this is just my opinion, but it seems to me that the truly memorable photographs have the characteristic of feeling – feeling of the photographer about the moment being captured. Something of the photographer’s history and unconscious bleeds into the photograph.

Vj_day_kiss Think for a minute about Eisenstaedt’s “Kiss.” Eisenstaedt was a German Jew, born in Bavaria in 1906. He served in the German army in the artillery in World War I. He photographed Hitler’s meeting with Mussolini in Italy. He photographed Joseph Goebbels at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1933. He had to flee Germany when the Nazi’s began to actively persecute the Jews. Can you image the storm surge of feeling that raced through his being when he captured the iconic photo of the sailor in Time’s Square sweeping a nurse into his arms and planting an enthusiastic kiss on her lips as the end of World War II was announced? That’s feeling. Eisenstaedt lived his life through the lens of his camera, and when you know the history, it appears to be no accident that he was the guy in Times Square with his camera ready to catch the celebration of V-J day.

You and I cannot retrace Eisie’s steps, although if you told me I would be given a chance to photograph Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Ernest Hemingway, I would be temped to try. There are many others who have captured memorable photos without the travail that Eisenstaedt faced: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Fiedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Ansel Adams... I could go on. The common thread is feeling, intuition, involvement and the ability to let a bit of the unconscious bleed into the photograph. The truly memorable photographs seem to have a bit of the photographer in them. He or she is shooting a feeling, a realization about life that brings his or her whole experience to bear on a moment full of meaning which is captured in a single frame.

An aside: Do you know what Eisenstaedt would do for practice when times were slow? He would take a simple subject like and egg and put it under a single light. He would shoot the egg with every combination of f-stop and shutter speed possible (do the math), and then he would print every single negative in the darkroom just to see what the film and paper would do. The message is clear: for the greats, like Eisie, Weston, Adams, McCurry, and Cartier-Bresson, the technical skill is a given. These folks have shot so many exposures that the camera becomes an extension of their nervous system, much like the union of a great musician with the instrument. They reach the point at which the mechanism becomes invisible. As long as we are fiddling with our gadgets, we are not in the place where the truly memorable photographers live.

I don’t care for tidy summaries because they always seem to reduce good thoughts to over-simplifications, but if I had to do it with this idea, I would say that novices shoot ideas in their heads; journeymen shoot what they see, but the truly memorable photographers shoot what they feel.

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