Tools that Get in the Way of Making Great Photographs

Separation #1

Separation #1
Key: R20120219-220646-v2

I’ve written a few times here about the struggle I am going through trying to develop a new side to my photography. I want to imagine photographs and make them. This is very different than going through life finding interesting photographs and taking them. Not better, just different, and something I want to develop.

This way of making photographs is an entirely new way of working, and though the end process is the same, the beginning process is very different. Finally realizing that was somewhat of a revelation to me. But once I had realized that, I still didn’t know how to start, although I felt better about floundering around. But now I feel like I am finally making progress, and I am beginning to imagine all kinds of photographs that I want to make. So much so that I started a special journal just to record my ideas. I call it a sketchpad, although it is not literally one.

It seems there were several pieces to this puzzle that had to come together and to find and fit each one was a struggle. I want to tell you about one of the last pieces of the puzzle that recently fit into place.

One of my mistakes was visualizing the tools I would use to make these new kind of photographs (I am not talking here about camera equipment so much, but rather lighting and setting). I thought that if I just started practicing with the tools, eventually the muse would visit. It was interesting and useful to practice with these new tools. But the muse did not visit. It was only when I let go of the tools, and was deep in cognitive meditation over this muddled state of affairs that I was reminded of a fundamental piece of advice about photography: that you need to take photographs of things or ideas that you are passionate about. If you do that one thing, the technique and all the rest will come along and the photographs will be great. If you are not passionate about the subject, the viewing audience will know it and feel it.

I think this is maybe one of the best pieces of advice going. Many photographers are passionate about photography: they shoot anything, because the joy of photography is utmost in their mind. These photographers will make good photographs, but until they combine the passion for photography with a strong interest in a subject the photographs will generally not be great. (Sadly, there seem to be even more “photographers” who are passionate mostly about cameras. They have an even longer path to great photography.)  I think this is why most really good photographers organize their work around long-term projects: these are the subjects they are passionate about.

Mind you, I’m not trying to claim any high ground here–most of my photography has spanned a wide gamut of subjects; most of my photography has been about the love of photography. However, I did start out in landscape photography because of a love of nature and wild places, and I can remember how that love of both nature and photography yielded a synergy that was greater than the parts. As I’ve grown older and my human relationships have developed and deepened, I’ve grown a similar passion for taking pictures of people. But back to my point: when I finally dropped everything, and started some introspection about the people, causes and things that I was truly passionate about, all kinds of ideas began to form. I’m sure eventually some of those ideas will be able to make use of those new tools and skills that I acquired, but I learned my lesson: those are all ancillary considerations.

I think I can sum up my lessons learned in five points, in order of importance, for making this kind of photographs:

  1. Find your subjects (for which you have a passion)
  2. Brainstorm, imagine and visualize your photographs
  3. Write them all down religiously; organize your visions into a plan
  4. Bring your love of photography
  5. Use the tools and skills to make the photograph match the vision

Seems so basic in hindsight.  I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Back to the photograph.  This is the first photograph in a series that I am calling Separation.  There will be more–I’ve got several in mind.  Most of them right now are more complicated than this one and I’m going to have to figure out the logistics of getting them done.  But the seeds of the ideas are there, and it’s a new world to conquer, and I’m excited again.  I’ll have more to say about the theme as it develops.  For now I’d prefer to let the photo say whatever it says to you.



10 thoughts on “Tools that Get in the Way of Making Great Photographs

  1. A follow up comment on my own post:
    I have been involved in putting on a photography competition and show every year called the Hawaii Photo Expo. I have seen this central concept play out over and over again: an entry in the “student” category that is technically weak, but still an excellent photo because the photographer was passionate about the subject vs. a technically perfect photo in the “masters” category, which is totally uninspiring because the photographer simply “moved on” to another subject after capturing it.

  2. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m passionate about when it comes to subjects. I like all sorts of subjects – old cars, buildings, scenics and yesterday I went out and photographed trains at a train museum. I like those subjects, but I honestly can’t say I’m passionate about them. To be completely flaky, I think my passion lies in photographing people, yet I don’t photograph people because I’m intimidated by the thought of trying to direct them and work with them. One of my plans for the year, (and here it is nearly the end of February!) is to work more with people, and either discover that’s the passion, or not.

    Nice write-up and photo, Eric.

    • John,
      I use the term “passionate” kind of loosely–I think other terms like “care deeply about”, “love”, “hate”, etc. will also work. Basically, some kind of strong emotion that will resonate in the final image. It is about the transfer of this emotion to the work. If that is not present in the beginning, it is hard to fake it and imbue the photograph with the same vibe.

      It sounds like you have some things that you like photographing, are those strong enough emotions for you to influence your photograph, or does it feel like a detached thing when you take or look at the image? Good to hear of your plans to work with people–go for it!

      • I have this perception of passion that in this case may be a bit extreme – I used to cycle with what I define as passion, that is, “eat, breathe, ride”. With photography it’s a little different, but I think about it most times when I’m not doing it, and when I am doing it I’m usually very focused, regardless of the subject. Maybe that makes me passionate about photography and measured about the subjects I’m shooting. Regardless, I feel good doing it and I enjoy post-processing in the old digital darkroom as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Subject matter, lighting and not to forget the title got my brains going, Eric – in that sense the image is already successful.

    Your approach sounds wise, but I am still struggling with how to relate it to my own photographic endeavours. It seems that I am very much in love with “found” images at the moment, images where I as viewer suddenly recognize how the parts have come together to form an image. For me it’s still very much the fascination of finding and seeing. With your take on gear I agree very much: the technical part should be unobtrusive, the handling of what you use should be easy and done almost subconsciously in order to allow you to follow the vision – but as there is the technical process between seeing and the image on paper or screen, vision an realisation have to set up a positive relationship with the gear. When I manage to get those in unison, I can see what I can frame and capture what I envision.

    • Markus, I love “found image” photography myself. It is what I know best, also. One could spend a whole lifetime doing nothing but that–it is a rich vein to mine. But I have seen other photographers who work this different way, from visualizing the photo within and then manufacturing it. I wondered whether I could do that too, because I find the idea fascinating. Of course there are stimuli influencing the “picture within”, but I think they are more hazy, nebulous influences than the visual stimuli for found images. Put another way, in found images, the visual stimuli evoke emotions–in “made images” the emotions evoke visual stimuli. Something like that.

      • ‘in “made images” the emotions evoke visual stimuli…’ is a strong concept, and a universe at least as large and rich as the “found images” realm. And if you think of Uelsman’s images, probably way bigger. The only bounds are within the personal imagination. (Note to self: sounds tempting!)

  4. Hmm … interesting but not for me. Basically my images are found images, but so often what seems to be the subject is really only the physical place where I saw what the true subject is: relations of geometrical forms, lines, shapes, proportions, colors, balance. Really most of my images are abstract, the subject being some geometric sub-structure. Like the bicycles: it isn’t about bikes at all, it is about lines in three-dimensional space, projected onto the sensor. At least that’s what my composition process currently is, what I look for, how I see photography and what I’m passionate about.

    I arrange lines, shapes colors and proportions until I feel balance. The subjects are really not that important to me. One day I may arrive at the same point as you have, but from another direction. And as always, Mark Hobson is already there. But then, he had quite a head start 😀

    • Hi Andreas,
      Shapes, lines, colors, tones, abstracts, these are all things that photographers can be passionate about. I think you are already shooting things that you really like–in the “found” mode.

      My point was that I had to remember that old adage not only for my “found” photography, but to apply that to my attempt to also develop my “conceptual” side as well (to use your word). Because there is no found object to get me started, I needed to start with a subject that I was interested in enough that my thoughts are always swirling around it and bringing up creative ideas.

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