The WCPF travelling critique was our last evening, and as ever there is something to be got out of sitting down and critically discussing the works of other photographers, especially if we then extend that to our own work. Some photographers get too caught up in the notions of developing a style or shooting a particular way thinking that their body of work will evolve through consistency alone.
That is like braking going uphill, sometimes it is necessary, but it involves a great deal of wasted energy. It is understandable though when the idea that photographic style is a filter we apply to an image. No this is not an anti-Instagram rant, and if that sounds like something we use to combat the symptoms of hay fever then now is an opportunity to catch up by clicking here.
But Instagram is a good place to start. Kevin Systrom, who was a co-founder of Instagram and who did very nicely, thank you, when it was sold to Facebook, had the idea seeded for the app when a Professor in Italy introduced him to the Holga camera, a cheap everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do sort of camera that produces very retro looking pictures on 120 roll film. But that quirkiness actually forms the basis of the Holga’s modern-day appeal and yes, you can get filters to modify your everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do to do Holga-esque images, just make sure you are well braced when you do because the weight of the irony of that is going to hit your wallet pretty hard.
The fact is film had/has its own look. Each brand would have their own unique ways of capturing and processing the light. Just in slide film: Kodachrome went through several “looks” over its life; Fuji was noted for its blue tones; Agfa was something else again; ditto Scotch, the list goes on.
Then there are/were the options/limitations in printing. Papers, inks, chemicals, sizes, frames, viewing options and conditions all have an impact. What they cannot do, however, is cover for lousy composition. Poor lighting. Wrong exposure. Unengaged subject. Surely filters / looks / processes / post-production can lend atmosphere to an image but unless the style is “Never mind the quality feel the width” they are not going to do much for our artistic integrity.
What we are looking for is a quality of the imagination, showing our individuality by drawing with light (Greek: photo – light graphy from graphe making lines or as we would call it, drawing). Style in the literary sense is about how the tools of language, clauses, spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like are put together to make an impression on the reader. We use light and shadow, directionality, the tools of composition and a photosensitive surface capable of recording the fall of light and dark on a subject in the same way. We fashion a statement on a subject.
What other people are doing is a start, but it is only a start. Copying what others have done, making a re-interpretation of something that has gone before, making our own statement, is a great way to learn but it is a means to an end. However, it is not the reason we pick up the camera (at least before we disappear up our own dirt pipes like the voice over on any given perfume advert). Understanding the technicalities by replicating the image is a learning tool, not an end in itself.
That said there is a notion that we can move between taking snapshots to making photographs. In so doing we develop, through habit, a photographic style. Whether it is a conscious statement or not. Perhaps we keep making the same mistakes, is that a style? Broadly yes but it is the elimination of the incidental and replacing it with the deliberate that makes a difference. It is that interpretation that is the seedbed of the individual’s style. That is when we start bothering less about what everyone else is doing.
Defining our style is one thing. Refining it is something else. Technical skills matter, you have to be able to apply the rules before you can start breaking them successfully. Purpose is the key. And lots of lots of practice. Lots and lots and lots.
Longtime sufferers of this blog will know that the world is divided into two. The Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. I err towards the former, but that is a personal thing. The fact is we need skills in both, but that we are probably better at one than the other.
That said there is a lot of time effort and money to be spared in getting the thing you have in your head onto your computer file (that is what we are creating until the image is printed) in as close to finished form as we can in the place where most of the important elements and all the results of those irreparable decisions are made. The camera. Just don’t let it get in the way.
Having the camera and lighting skills gives us the option to manipulate what we see in the fashion we want it seen. Post-production then tidies up and polishes. That sequence is the one that lets our style evolve and show through. Is it the only way? I doubt it. Having the confidence in using the materials we have to hand to make our statement makes for a stronger more assured one. When the “rules” are broken it is to a deliberate effect. Style thus evolves through confidence.
This last fortnight we have covered ROC round 3 and it was our turn for the WCPF prints, where we could exercise our own critiquing skills. This is always popular as members can be more involved than is necessarily the case on competition nights. On my table we got into some earnest questions not so much as which pictures we favoured but why that was so. Agreement wasn’t necessarily required, and we came to our 1,2,3 decisions for each category through a simple majority vote. That wasn’t really the point of it all though. The theming of those prints gave me an idea for this weeks blog.
When we look at other people’s work we are looking at other peoples way of seeing, which is not ours. Sounds deep. Essentially if we want to improve we have, at some time or other, to challenge our own way of seeing, discuss our way of seeing. Using the WCPF and viewing the competition work we can put that into some sort of perspective. Yes I like that – why? No I don’t like that – why not? The Japanese have a saying that if you want to know the answer ask, five times, why? Basically break down the reasons to the core. That teaches us something about our own preferences and we can, if we take note of these things, start to make a difference to our own work through it. Or, as I am sure I have quoted to you before: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – get it out with Optrex” (Spike Milligan). It has to be a conscious decision though, to do something about it.
Sounds like a slow process? Well it is. Our world is awash of nail-it-in-five-easy-lessons advice, yet that isn’t how humans learn. Sure you can get the basics right in about 20 hours but making the learning our own, that takes longer. Practice makes perfect as I am sure you have been told. Along with “Fail is just the First Attempt In Learning” and other useful things you want to strangle people for. And until we start to take on the critical eye, start taking and rejecting opportunities as part of a conscious effort, we just go round in one big circle until we are torpedoed by our own failed expectations. Bit like the sinking of the Bismarck.
But it’s a hobby. We do because we enjoy. There is no other compulsion than the one that gnaws at us to get the camera out of its bag and go shoot something (in the nicest possible way). There is always something on to point the camera at, the local “What’s On” tells us so. Left to the random too much can get missed or we end up trying to do too much in too little time. Opportunity generally isn’t a problem. Having a direction, some rails to run on, some clues as to what to look for, that is a great way of focusing the attention. Welcome to the world of the photo-project.
In its simplest form a photo project is a theme, a camera and a (regular?) space in the diary. There are as many projects as photographers, it seems, and that is because, to work, it has to be personal. We have to have some emotional attachment to what we are doing or it simply will not get done. The first point to take on board is that a 365 day project, a photo a day, sounds great when we start out but I am willing to bet that most of them don’t get completed, or get modified into something more suited to time and effort available. 30 day and 7 day projects are also popular and are more feasible. Timescale has a role to serve as we are effectively making an appointment with ourselves. The subject can be anything, but has to be something we have to put more than the usual amount of effort to complete. Then there are subject variations like: shoot 100 strangers (the serial killers favourite); A-Z; 52/26/12/any random number Photo-walks; pick a colour/theme; one focal length; the Roll of 12/24/36 (back to the old film days where you limit yourself to a film roll on a shoot); The 100 ISO challenge (fixed ISO can also be done with fixed aperture or speed); manual only focusing; plus a host of others.
Of course there is also the ongoing project, the one that lasts over months and years, that can involve deeper immersion in the subject where the style you develop adapts to the conditions your subject is most commonly found in. Osmosis, by and large is not a thing that produces results particularly quickly, if at all. The whole planned thing gets you thinking. The whole well I didn’t expect that thing we find when we get to a location challenges us to adapt. These two things help us develop but the third leg of the stool – looking critically at what other people have done and why we like it or what we would change about it and how we apply it to our own work- puts what we are trying to do in a context. That gives us something to learn and to improve with.
OK so this is based on a my-best-shot-is-my-next-one philosophy, but continuous development builds over time. It is about DELIBERATE practice. Now practice does not have to be devoid of fun, again I say this is our hobby, not our penance, but if we take Henri Cartier-Bresson’s point quoted in the last blog that “Your first ten thousand photographs are your worst” we miss the point and that point is the our first ten thousand deliberate photographs are our worst. And that is OK. Deliberation is the difference, and that can be as simple as going through your latest batch of images and thinking “If I were to take that one again I would ….” and then doing it. That is where we came in. Five members of a photographic club sitting around a table deciding what attracts them to different photo’s, and why, as a basis of going out and doing something about it.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Club member Julie Kaye on underwater photography.
This week I am going to stick my neck out a long way. It is always interesting to see what other photographers have put their effort into if only to sort what you like and dislike. The trick is to sort out what exactly you see in the image that you like or dislike and then to decide how you would use it. This last bit is the most important for us as developing photographers. The WCPF Travelling Critique is an excellent resource and it was good to get fellow members views on some of those prints. These are the ones that were accepted but didn’t make it into the top 100, so why do you think? I am going to use the blog this week to try and build something you might want to consider when looking critically at a photograph (or a number of other things). There is more than one way, and this is not (emphasis on not) about how to become a judge, see the WCPF for those details. Feel free to disagree and use the discussion options on the blog to tell me how wrong I am and where and why.
Susan Sontag (1933-2004), critic and one of the foremost on photography wrote: “Mallarme said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph” and there were a wide variety of topics covered by the photographers who entered the WCPF Open, but to take the book metaphor a little further, not all of them told a story. Story is an important part of photography, it is rarely, if ever, just about the content of the photograph as you could write in a shopping list. It is the interconnectedness of the whole thing, its construction. So 100 photographs, 100 stories? Well I have already stated that to be not quite the effect, but there are two sides to each story/image, the teller and the viewer. “To photograph is to confer importance” – Sontag again, but that importance isn’t always shared by the viewer.
To illustrate from my own and some shared observations from other members as we went around. There was one print that I just failed to get the point of – as did several other members from the discussion around me. There were a couple of other prints that close up didn’t have the impact they promised at a distance. One I glanced at on a side table when the main lights were out and it was being lit from an acute angle by the light on the picture stand several feet away and it worked really well, as if there were multiple faces staring out. In an even light it was flat. One of a black and white subject would have been better (if a little ironically) rendered in colour because it’s focal point was an eye which would be big and brown and contrast to the monochrome represented in the rest of the frame. The blacks weren’t black enough and the whites a shade of grey to my eyes. The eye, the focal point from the title of the work, instead of being deep and vibrant, was soulless.
On the other hand: John Long ARPS DPAGB image “Dennis And His Bowl” had more depth to its tones the more you looked; Gill Cardy ARPS DPAGB AFIAP “Japanese Crane Dance” was the best of the wild life photography for me and Hanneke at least agreed with me on that one; Sheila Haycox ARPS DPAGB AFIAP ” Despair” I thought very atmospheric and I was struck by the shapes mirrored in window and figure; the composition, strong and simple and colour contrast shown by Martin Horton in “Passing The Pieta” I thought arresting and Mike Martin’s “Stair Light” I would happily hang on my wall. If you are now convinced that I shouldn’t be allowed near a keyboard unless heavily medicated, great! What is it about those images that makes you disagree?
I am not going to look at the technical aspects, that can be done better by others and is covered by the events we do over the year, thanks to the committee. The rules are not hard and fast but they should be mastered before we start to break them. So I am going to take for granted that the image: Is in focus and on the most appropriate part of the picture; that dust and marks have been cloned out (clean the lens and sensor regularly, even better!) and exposure is appropriate.
So, as someone who likes photography and who wants to understand more of it by making my own, it’s necessary that I don’t just suspend my judgement at the point of my initial reaction (though usually the strongest). The most powerful word in the whole of education is because (I don’t do humble opinions in case you hadn’t guessed). That is how we make the links between things, by applying our inner critic, by stating because …. There is a Japanese proverb that goes something along the lines of “If you want to know the answer ask, five times, why?” which is a very good place to start – five is an approximate number but in practise never less than three. That is the route to take after you have your initial reaction.
If you are in want of a metaphor for this whole process, think of a funnel. A funnel restricts the path of whatever passes through it to a defined point. Criticism of a piece of work should do the same. If it doesn’t it’s not the work but the criticism that is incomplete. Sort out what it is you like and what it is you dislike about the image. Make notes, mental or otherwise. These are great places to make the next steps on the journey and they can be used to improve your own images too. What we are sorting out is what we feel about an image and why. Yes it is subjective and certain (breakable) technical rules about framing, exposure and focussing aside, this is a subjective exercise. Very small things can take an OK photograph to a good one when executed well. This photograph makes me feel ….. because …..
Then is the time to look at how you react to those technical subjects, the ones I have listed above plus things like the use of colour (or not) and the thing that is so important to photography that it is named after it, the light (strength, direction, balance, colour). Ask yourself, “So what”?
There has been a lot of hot air generated over whether photography is an art or a craft, I would argue both. For me there is an art in all crafts and all art is manufactured. There is a connection between the nine linen panels of the Bayeux Tapestry (actually it’s an embroidery) and Robert Capa’s eleven surviving images from Omaha Beach (10 were published) but it isn’t in materials, scale, production time or production values and the big story, Norman Conquest, D-Day Landings respectively, wasn’t the artists to own but was there’s to tell. The way they tell it (please, no Frank Carson jokes at the back) is the art. Its balancing of the elements the craft. How does this photographer choose to represent this subject? Does it come across as a considered, thoughtful treatment or is it casually selected? That matters because …? It focuses the attention on ….? which is important because …? Would this image work better in black and white/colour? Why …? because …? Why do you think the photographer made the choice to use/not use colour/black and white? What do you feel about that? How is it cropped? Is the composition classical? Does it follow the rule of thirds? or the rule of fifths? (basically for landscapes, but works on the face too, I am told) or did they/you go to art school/ good at maths/have watched every episode of QI and cunningly employ the Golden Ratio? What effect does it have …? Because…? How does the arrangement of objects in the frame give energy to the story? Because…?
Now you have enough material to make your decision about the photograph and importantly, you can say with some confidence why it works or doesn’t work for you. This is important for us as developing photographers. Other people’s work is as important as our own at the very least (no, make that more important if we want to develop our own) if we want to get past the click-go-happy accident form of photography we probably joined a photographic club to get away from. The next step is to take all this and decide what you would do to improve it by way of everything else you have looked at. This would work because …?
Now in a more formal setting, one where you report back to an audience either directly or in writing (this goes for any topic, not just photography) you would need to feed all this information back. If you find yourself in this situation don’t just repeat what you have already said, summarise it and use the things you have discovered because you have asked yourself because (or so what) as the conclusive points. Take it from someone who has sat through thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of presentations, it makes a big difference.
A really big thanks to Julie and Ian for their efforts last night, much appreciated.
Here endeth the lesson. Over to you ….
Next week … Wedding photography … you only get one chance to get it right!
This Blog was written by Ian G.
We’ve just posted it a little differently due to some upcoming changes to our website (more details on that soon!)