The other end of the lens this week, with a presentation by Paul Walker, who has been a model at the club on several occasions, and his experiences as a model over the last five years. Paul has gathered about 20,000 images over that time from the photographers he has worked with, including present and former members of the club and his is an interesting perspective.
From the off Paul framed his presentation within the context of mutual collaboration, certainly within the idea put forward here before (it escapes my memory by whom, unfortunately) that we do not take someone’s photograph, they give us their photograph, or as Jean-Luc Godard put it “When you photograph a face …. you photograph the soul behind it”.
It may not be a scientific fact, but after a while of taking pictures of people, there are certainly those who the camera takes to more than others. In part that is to do with symmetry and features but it is mainly about the connection either side of the film plane. Paul talked about the photograph as a collaboration, having an idea and communicating it.
Certainly, there are two people in every photograph (at least) the subject and the viewer and it is the viewer that we work to engage. We, the photographers, are the unseen intermediaries, we are the mentors and the coaches as much as the producers and directors, we take and shape the light, we work with the subject to make the image.
“If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.” – Eve Arnold.
But the emotion, the feelings, the communication all comes from the subject. It is their story, we merely light and frame and take the image, a little slice of time and circumstance that never happened before or since and being unique to that time, but we need to do it empathetically.
Of course, there are the techniques of lighting and posing and exposure to apply but Paul’s commentary on his favourite shots underlined photographer David Alan Harvey’s advice “Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like,” and that has to come from both sides of the lens coming together.
Certainly, there are differences in posing men, posing women, posing children, and using natural or artificial light and any number of different styles (High Key, Low Key, Noir, to name but three). Small differences between shots are worth recording and studying. And discussing with our model. Let’s face it, an experienced model probably has more experience of doing these things than we do and though they may not be au fait with the technical side of the camera they know about how to work with light from their end.
And if it is all about communication then there needs to be a dialog of some sorts, allowing photographer and model to play to our strengths. To do that we need to be mindful of the atmosphere we are in and the one we are trying to create – pointless in being somber and funereal when trying to create a party atmosphere and vice versa, pointless not shooting what it feels like but shooting what we think it looks like. And always be polite. Be respectful.
And yes, it helps enormously if both sides have an idea of what point we are trying to get to, so time spent in reconnaissance, as Napoleon Bonaparte was apt to say, is never wasted. And it is better to stay positive when things aren’t going to plan, doom and gloom will kill the vibe and as the photographer, we are the key to keeping the momentum going.
It is a collaboration and our thanks to Paul for providing an informative and stimulating evening in giving the far side of the lense’s perspective.
The presentation this week was by club members who are also members of the “Dream Team” which was started by former Reflex member Tony Cooney, who gave an excellent talk to the club on his time serving in Iraq at the beginning of this season. The Dream Team is a collective of models, M.U.A’s (Make Up Artists) and photographers, some of whom are also Reflex members, who meet once a month to shoot in a variety of venues on a given theme.
This links well into next weeks reflection on how the club has affected two members photography, because one of the ways that we improve is to get ideas and feedback from other photographers. Now it is a fact of life that some people are thin skinned and others immune to the criticism of others and it is also a fact that we are more likely to listen to positive criticism, of which there are two sorts. There is that which is founded in reason, and when reasons are given then we can learn and there is that which is founded on prejudice, the one and only way.
The first of these is worth listening to the latter is, largely, just somebody telling you at length that they did not take this photograph. That which is founded on experience and an open mind may be just as subjective as that which is founded in ego but is by far the more useful of the pair. If there is some form of standardisation to the process then there is a basis for a shared understanding. Mix this with practice (and make it fun) and we get somewhere on the road to results.
The Dream Team’s wide ranging interests and themes and the interconnectedness of the various art forms involved make for something much bigger in the end. Any fool can press a shutter button, daub their body in some paint and gurn at a camera, but that whole Gestalt thing is vastly different when specialists come together to produce a result outside their individual discipline. The inter-connectedness of those disciplines and the imaginations of the people involved make for something much larger.
There is a scientific basis to this, according to research at Stanford University that looked into the difference between finding our passion and developing one. It concluded that being told to find our passion maybe well intended but ultimately it is misplaced advice.
In the short term to find our passion we must go looking for it, for sure. In so doing we create deliberate actions and with such purpose comes results. In the short term, the very act of looking opens up our minds to new opportunities. Open up our minds to new opportunities and we open up ourselves to creative possibilities. Open up ourselves to creative possibilities and we may find our passion. It is what comes next that is critical for development of that passion.
It is the relaxing bit that comes with having found our true passion in life that does the damage. The comfort food of “True Passion” turns sour – maybe it’s our true yoghurt – when it comes to the hard bits. First off, in relative ignorance, we can kid ourselves that we are quite good at this thing, and that we have got it cracked. This is the brain looking for time off and we will get stuck there if we don’t become critical of our own work – creatively critical that is.
Learning by looking at the greats is as old as art itself. Photography is no exception. You can look at your Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey, Weegee, David Hockney, Martin Parr, Richard Avendon, Robert Capa, Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Edward Weston make the list as long as you like, with the internet it can be done. Look at what they have published and have some sort of framework to go by BUT, we are not going to be them. Their time and pathway are different to ours, as well as their artistic sensibilities, no matter how much we admire them. What do we learn from what they see?
The point about that is that it is a great way to learn technique. It’s a great way to set ourselves challenges and that is where finding and developing take separate paths. If we go the development route we are much more likely to stick with it and to use the challenges and frustrations as spurs rather than drift way from something we found.
Collaborative working, under the right sort of atmosphere, is a great way of developing. Knowing the direction we are going in, or want to go in, forces us into certain choices. Again these are better if they are deliberate choices. The biggest factor in this is having somewhere there is a free flow of ideas and an informal collective can be a very good framework for that, especially when ideas are coming in from different disciplines.
Get this bit right and the way that the team works becomes more flexible and responsive to the overall goal – everybody is ending up with some great shots to add to their portfolio. Because there was time and effort put in then the capacity to use these skills, set ups, lighting, composition tools and so on again, under different challenges, adds to not just the photographers, skill sets.
When taking photographs of people, which the Dream Team essentially is, it can seem that it is the photographer who is doing the final work. OK the MUA’s/hairdressers/ got the subject’s look ready, which determines a successful outcome by altering and enhancing where light, shade and attention will fall, and the models give the look, clothes, posture and attitude, but it’s the tog who is determining the final composition. Sort of. Really it is the photographer who has the greatest opportunity to foul everything up and the easiest way to do that is not to take efforts with the other people in the process.
Essentially the photographer has to give credence to the fact that successful photographs of people are not taken they are given. It is a collaborative process.