26 December 2010

When Everything Is Ugly…

Shot Up Chevy, Penrose Colorado …Shoot the Ugly. This is a bit of trick, a hook to get your attention, because I don’t think there is ever a situation where everything is completely ugly. Still, it’s easy to get into that frame of mind in the dead of winter when the scenery is bleak and gray. It’s easy to get into that frame of mind in a blighted urban landscape where buildings are abandoned and decrepit, and gray concrete stretches as far as the eye can see. As photographers, we’re faced with a crucial choice: to shoot the scene before our eyes, or wait until the season and the scenery is pretty, according to some idealized notion of the way things ought to look.

Honestly, both forks in the road are valid. Some photographers, through the skillful use of models and studios, or by travel to exotic locations, create alternative realities that bear little resemblance to the everyday world most of us inhabit. Others painstakingly document the worlds they experience with all of the accuracy they can bring to bear. Personally, I identify more with the second group, the photojournalists. I do studio work, but I prefer to be out in the world and documenting what is happening. I have those times when things look bleak and uninteresting to me, and I struggle to find subjects to photograph. So, what are some strategies to get over the “everything is ugly” syndrome?


Dive into the ugly. Wallow in it. Find the ugliest thing you can and photograph it. Edward Weston made a photograph of a dead pelican floating in a tidal pool. Most of us would look at the dead bird and say, “Yuck,” but Weston saw the tragic poetry and the composition, and created a strangely compelling photograph from a scene that most of us would call extremely ugly. Scenes such as this often evoke strong feelings and meanings, and while they may not be “pretty” photographs, the can be very powerful and effective.

Curly Tree with Snow Recalibrate Your Head

If your idea of a great photo only extends to sun-washed beaches in the Caribbean, but you live in Salinas, Kansas, you have a problem. I’m willing to go on record as saying that there’s a great photo in Salinas, Kansas that is yet to be made, but you won’t see it if you’re looking for the bikini babes on the white sand beach. Instead of searching for something that fits a preconceived idea of a great picture, let the world show you the picture. Look around. What do you find yourself staring at? What scenes evoke feeling and memories in you? These are likely to be the best subjects for your photographs.

Starlings Eating Berries Closeup Look Again. Look Closer. Then, Step Back.

A point of view is a mission-critical piece of mental equipment. It helps to have one. Zoom in, Zoom out. Walk around. A dud from one POV is a masterpiece from another. Try using a lens with a different focal length from what you usually use. Get high (like altitude) or low and shoot from different angles. Look for subtle colors and interesting textures. Find a different viewpoint from the one you usually shoot. Move your body around across the face of the planet and observe the world as you’re doing it.

Playing in the Park Take Your Own Pulse

“Everything is Ugly” is really an attitude rather than an accurate description. I don’t really like winter. I don’t like to be cold. I particularly dislike ice and trying to move around on it. I love green, warmth and the vitality of the growing season – all of those things that disappear in the dim days of winter. So, I tend to cop an attitude about winter, and it’s negative. A negative attitude will color our perceptions strongly, often without us realizing it. The only antidote for a negative attitude is awareness – the proverbial “gut check.” If you’re not seeing pictures, take your emotional “pulse.” Are you carrying a negative attitude about the place, the season, or even yourself as a photographer? Such things can get in the way and prevent us from seeing the pictures that are really there. By bringing these negative attitudes into consciousness, we may not completely get rid of them, but we can make new decisions about them. We can stop them from obscuring our vision.

Vision is so shaped by attitude. We tend to find what we expect to find. If we believe there is nothing out there to photograph, we usually find nothing and confirm that belief. If we take the attitude that there is a photograph out there, but we just haven’t found it yet, we tend to find it. Since I have never found a place where there was absolutely nothing photograph, I tend to take the attitude of “I just haven’t found it yet,” and most of the time, it pays off.

Brick Out Building

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