Escape from yourself: clouds are like thoughts, the clear blue sky is freedom, and the person left behind is your ego. The car represents your way out, and the road is the constraints of your mind, complete with bright areas, order, logic, and dark, unconscionable ones.
I’ve often been accused of making images that are precise, cold and soulless; the more I look at images from other photographers, I’m inclined to agree. Taken in context with the opening title of this article, that probably doesn’t bode well for impressions of me as a person. It did get me thinking, though: since the act of photographing is really one of conscious exclusion in which we eliminate all of the elements that are distracting or unnecessary to the subject/ story, what does this say about us?
All choices are a reflection of our personalities and the combined consequences of our experiences in life, photographic, compositional or otherwise. Assuming we are not on paid, client-dictated shoots (and even then, to some extent) what stands out to us as being interesting or unusual and worthy of photographing thus is specific to the individual. Even if we are on a commissioned shoot – most of the time there is some flexibility in the angles, lighting choices etc. that are left to the photographer, dictated by his or her aesthetic preferences and limited by technical skill and experience.
There is an abundance of pictures online that are technically dominated: by this I mean photographs that have neither strong story nor clear subject, but tick all of the boxes for image quality. They show good shot discipline and an ability to use the camera, but little else. This too reflects on the photographer: they’ve spent plenty of time on the process sand the gear, but very little on actually finding something to photograph, and nothing at all in developing the idea underpinning the composition of the image. This isn’t to say that the creators of these images are poor photographers; they may just be lacking in direction and experience. I’ve always felt it’s much easier to learn the technical parts of image-making than the aesthetic/ artistic ones.
Opinions are like noses; everybody has one – or so the saying goes (with more crude variants). When it comes to certain things, I do believe that experience and expertise matter and some opinions are more valid than others; however, with something s subjective as photography and art, then there’s no right or wrong. There is only what you like, or dislike. It is categorically impossible to please everybody simultaneously as there will always be somebody who finds your subject uninteresting (or worse) or your composition off, or so on. Therefore, so long as you are not producing images for a client, the most important thing is that you yourself are satisfied with your images. I have presented a lot of photoessays on this site – most generally receive positive comments, but occasionally I’ll get one person who doesn’t ‘get’ the images, even though they might have liked previous work, or somebody who’s just misanthropic (the latter I try ignore). All points of view are equally valid, but I am firstly happy with my own work – otherwise I wouldn’t show it publicly at all* – and could defend it if required. You should be at very least able to confidently say this of your own images.
*You are judged solely on what you show, not what you shoot.
Exclusion matters: both within the frame, and of your images as a whole. We include what we deem interesting or important – and exclude that which is not. At the very minimum we should be excluding and not showing images that are not interesting or in line with our vision; at best we should be fully in control of all elements in every image, or at very least be aware of them so we can make a conscious choice as to whether they are important, unimportant, or worse, distracting. Watching your edges and your set matters: by removing that which is distracting, what remains is visually more dominant and therefore clearer. Less is more, as always. Most people do not have problems finding and photographing a subject: they have problems excluding distractions. Though in reality your eyes may instantly zero in on your object/ subject of interest, in an image, it’s not as straightforward as we are firstly viewing in two dimensions, and secondly, the independent observer lacks the same bias (think of it as an irrelevance filter) as the photographer. Therefore, even though it is unnatural and counterintuitive, it’s actually very important to look carefully at what isn’t your subject, even more so than your subject itself. Again: most people miss the things that creep in around the edges of the frame. It’s one of the reasons why both frame coverage and eye relief are important: you need to be able to see the edges in the finder to begin with, then not have them occluded by the eyepiece.
Aside from the obvious subjects being biased towards the personal interests of the photographer, we also need to consider execution: a person who prioritises execution over artistic quality or the idea is likely to be a meticulous, and possibly a stickler for rules, hierarchy and order; those who play it fast, loose and Lomo tend to be of a more bohemian bent**. I am aware that this is a huge generalisation, but I’ve never met a photographer whose personality conflicted with the way they shot, how they shot, and what cameras/ equipment they used. There are a few of us who might use a wide variety of gear and techniques – I run with everything from large format film on a technical camera to an iPhone and medium format digital – but there’s still an overarching logic to the way we do things. Even though I might be using an iPhone for instance, I’ll still do my utmost to get as much image quality out of it as possible. I don’t use any less shot discipline with a method that has lower potential image quality yield; if anything, I’ll be just as careful, if not more so.
**I’m talking solely about people who’d consider themselves serious photographers. The loose documentary snapshots of non-photographers do not count as they generally do not have the interest or inclination to bother with the technicalities.
The execution is usually also reflected in the final output: beyond image quality, there are some things that simply cannot be done – low light night sports with large format film, for instance – and something things that look odd – think large-budget commercial shoot with iPhone. This not only limits compositional and lighting possibilities, but also the possible ‘looks’ or styles the final image may take, though arguably the borders have become very blurred in the last few years with the ever increasing reliance on photoshop and digital filters in creating the final output. I’ve often been criticised for my stubbornness in wanting to get as much as possible right in camera, even if it’s a more difficult method of execution or results in less ‘spectacular’ looking images, but this is as much a part of the way I see as anything. There’s no way anybody can argue that lighting isn’t an integral part of composition, for instance. What you see is revealed only by the light, and light cannot go around corners.
Clearly, we have subject and execution and equipment choices being a consequence of preference and personality; style is an evolution of that, and at an even more meta level, one’s whole approach to photography – ‘belief system’, if you will – is a reflection of your outlook on life. A jaded pro will make a very different image to an enthusiastic amateur who just got their first DSLR. It’s not because one person is more skilled than the other – though they may be – it’s a consequence of their experiences and preferences. The jaded pro might be technically superb, but lacking in imagination (or unable to stimulate their creativity after being forced to make the images the client wants for so long, rather than the images they want); the amateur might be technically loose but have a pent-up store of creativity waiting to be unleashed. You just never know.
I suppose it’s time to finish with a little introspection. I’m a scientist by training and a rational, logical person by nature; I analyse things to the nth degree before making a decision (much to the consternation of friends and family). This means that my images push the boundaries of quality and execution; I try to challenge what is technically possible under certain shooting situations (medium format reportage on a recent commercial assignment, for instance). But this also means my compositions can sometimes come off as being too perfect and ‘soulless': lacking in that little imperfection or spontaneity that some might find endearing or a subconscious reminder of one’s humanity. It is why I prefer to photograph the idea of man, rather than a man. Is this good or bad? Is it right or wrong? I have no idea. But I do know that the images I produce appeal to me, otherwise I wouldn’t produce them, much less share them: I’d be trying to up my game again so that I could produce the images I want. I think at this point the reason for choosing the illustrative images for this article are pretty clear: they’re very representative of who I am, and how I photograph. Logical, ordered, thought out, minimalist with a clear subject and idea, technically strong, and with a carefully considered touch of the unusual.
I’ve come to the conclusion that how we see is really nothing more or less than who we are; whether we are able to translate that into something appreciable by an audience or not is another matter. But to fundamentally change your images, you need to change the way you view the world, and to do that, you have to change yourself. MT
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