STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
Some time ago I watched a six-part BBC documentary series that is now 3 decades old. It was called "Masters Of Photography".
Each episode featured one of the greatest and most historically important photographers that ever lived.
It was fascinating to learn of their journeys into photography. They all had their own unique style, ethos and approach to their work. One common theme I noticed from these masters was that they "saw the shot" before they even raised the camera to their eye. Each knew exactly the photograph they wanted to capture. They had seen in their mind's eye the scene, its subject and the story to be communicated. Whether that was a split second before capturing, or something they had planned, it didn't matter. The fact they could visualize the final image was the important part.
That ability resulted in some of the most significant and iconic photographs, documenting society and humanity on all levels. It is also the attribute that made these men true artisans. Firstly, they knew their craft. Understood how to use the tool they had in their hands, venturing out into the world to capture some truly incredible images.
This key ingredient. This foresight, is what is missing from 99.99% of all the millions of photographs that are published on the Internet daily and why so few aspiring photographers make it to the top or even as a career. Emphasis today is more towards the camera than the person behind it. We invest too much trust into our equipment to deliver great photographs, when the truth of the matter is, it's simply a tool. A means of recording a scene. A dictaphone for the eyes.
The first hurdle amateurs have to overcome, is the mechanics of photography. Understanding the exposure triangle and learning how to use the camera efficiently and effectively. Next comes composition, which for most consists of the rule of thirds, leading lines and avoiding distracting elements in backgrounds. For many, this is the end of the story. For others it is just a solid foundation to build upon. They introduce artistry, juxtaposition, irony and meaning into their work and seek to use photography as a means of communication between themselves and the viewer.
These photographers will see something in their surroundings and instantly recognize it as an element awaiting the human interaction. Henri-Cartier Bresson was a prime example of this. Perhaps the grandfather of street photography, he would sit in wait to ambush an unwitting soul to enter the scene and take a photograph. That photograph was already clearly visible in his mind. He'd use the camera to re-create it.
Everyday we walk past hundreds, perhaps thousands of fantastic photographic opportunities. They go begging because of our inability to see them. We look, often in vain, desperate to see the shot and we fall short. But why? It's because we are all wired differently. We're drawn to different things. Think back to when you were at school. Some of your classmates had a natural affinity with numbers. Others were bookworms and proficient wordsmiths that could rattle off essays with ease. Some were always getting a "see me" in red ink on their maths and English homework but give them a pencil and paper and they'd draw great sketches all day long. Of course there was always one smart arse that was good at all three and we'd experience a bit of schadenfreude seeing the school bully beat them up for it.
It's because of our inherent proclivities that some people seem to excel at photography with relative ease. They can look at something and see it in an abstract way, that the vast majority cannot. The irony, the juxtaposition, the leading lines and patternation. These are the trailblazers. The ones that walk the path less traveled, breaking boundaries that the rest of us are forced to mimic.
I find Jeremy Cowart to be a great example of this. He came to photography from an art and graphic design background. In 2005 he decided to pursue photography and in a very short space of time rose from obscurity to become an internationally renowned photographer. In 2014 he was voted the World's most influential photographer. Not bad for someone who has been at it for under 10 years. Without a doubt, that kind of success majorly pisses off some people who've been at it for decades and gotten nowhere. He seems to see things that most people just wouldn't. Getting a model standing in an empty swimming pool to imitate the shape of the palm tree behind her, etc. Of course he has worked exceptionally hard to achieve what he has. It's not like he has just waltzed into that accolade purely because he can recognize what makes a good photograph more easily than others.
This may sound depressing to some of you but all is not lost. While things come naturally to certain people, it doesn't mean we cannot achieve the same. It just means we have to work harder at it and be more conscious and observant of our surroundings. Above all we need to think and be more imaginative than we currently are. Train our eyes to recognize the things that are more readily apparent to others. Program our brains to imagine those things but in a different light both figuratively and literally. See them as an element that needs other ingredients to make a great photo.
The way to go about this is to stand upon the shoulders of those who have come before us and learn from them. Apply their techniques and their ethos, to our own photography. What drew them to their subject matter? What was going through their mind? What were they looking for and trying to communicate through their pictures? It is this that so many of us are lacking in our work. As alluded to earlier, we seem to think the camera is some magic box that is solely responsible for the photograph. I think that the camera manufacturers and our consumer society is largely to blame for this. Because of the science of marketing and the impressive technologies cameras are imbued with, it's easy for too much emphasis to be placed upon them. When we appreciate the limitations of the camera and view it simply as a tool, we reclaim the responsibility for ourselves to make a good photograph. The camera merely takes it.
If you feel that despite technically perfect images, your photographs have something absent or all that's ever produced are sharp snapshots, it's because of a lack of imagination. You hire a beautiful model to shoot in the studio but the photographs don't leap off the screen at you, or that stunning landscape just seems dull and lifeless. It's because of a lack of vision to apply some artistic slant. Envisage the girl. The expression you want in her face. The position of her body. The light hitting her in all the right places creating the shadows and highlights you want. See that ocean vista with the Sun setting against an angry sky, waves crashing against the rocks. The motion of the water captured to perfection, conveying the motion and energy. See the one way sign and the person walking the opposite direction. Identify the juxtapositions, the homeless guy underneath the bank advert, The human condition.
It's when you develop these abilities and hone them, that you truly see the world around you. We are so used to walking around in a trance-like state. Heads down, buried in our smartphones, looking at the floor to avoid eye contact with strangers or just lost in our own little world dealing with the day's angst. Society has become so detached from our environment and from one another that we are ignorant of what is going on around us. In doing so, we walk past thousands of photographic opportunities and miss imagining the possibilities, as trivialities and stresses cloud our vision. We also become desensitized to our surroundings. Familiarity breeds contempt and it's easy to lose the appreciation in some truly beautiful things. For example, If you live in a bustling town or city and go to a tranquil beach, you'd love it. Absolute heaven! If you moved to the tranquil beach, after a while you'd probably find it a bit boring.
So take heed of those who have come before you. Take on board their teachings and grow. Observe the world around you. Imagine the potentials and then create them. Blaze your own trail.