Finding Your Photographic Voice
“The mission of the photographer is to put a frame around things you have seen all your life
and yet haven’t seen at all.” - David Goldhlatt
One of the key tropes in American modernist photography has been the concept of the transcendental photograph, proposing that photographs, rather than simply documenting surface appearance, could function like any other kind of art, as equivalents for philosophical ideas and psychological feelings. The photograph ideally would become an abstract carrier of meaning and emotion in the manner of music. The idea was to read things in the image, rather like staring at the flickering flames of a fire and letting the imagination wander.
Alas, it seems that in all too many cases photographers might photograph something without actually saying very much about it, except to compose the image competently and record something of what is there. In other words, too many photographers have little to say beyond the obvious and superficial. Many photographers do not move beyond the stage of being interested in photography for its own sake rather than being interested in the world. If Garry Winogrand had actually followed his own famous maxim and simply photographed to see what the world looked like in a photograph, I do not think his work would be so interesting. The fact that he went way beyond that to reveal not only his worldview, but a complex, slippery, tortured human being is what made him a great photographer.
The real trick - and here photography becomes immensely difficult and complex – is deciding what to photograph. And that, in essence, is a two-step process, or more accurately, a two-level process. The first step, or level, deciding upon the raw material - trees, nudes, war, raindrops on windows - represents a photographer finding her or his subject matter. It’s an important step, but not yet “job done.” The second, and much more difficult step, is to say something - something unobvious and personal - about the raw material. The two are very different entities, and a photographer’s subject may bear only the most oblique relationship to her subject matter.
The problem is the medium’s presumed literalness, so the photographer is not only trying to go beyond subject matter and find subject, she has to take her audience with her. Most people, and this can include people quite sophisticated and well versed in other arts, assume that if the photograph is of a white horse, the photographer is talking about white horses rather than loneliness or loss, or any number of apparently unlikely subjects, as well as the more obvious metaphors like strength or grace. The difference between what is photographed and what is actually said. Of course, the ultimate task for any photographer is to tell the subject’s tale, as well as her own.
In her book Immediate Family (1992), Sally Mann wrote: “When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths ‘told slant,’ just as Emily Dickinson commanded. We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality and beauty. But we tell it all without fear and without shame.”
The Pleasures of Good Photographs
Mastering Your Tools
“The camera is my tool. Through it I give a reason to everything around me.” - Andre Kertesz
Each medium of expression imposes its own limitations on the artist - limitations inherent in the tools, materials, or processes he employs. In the older art forms these natural confines are so well established they are taken for granted. We select music or dancing, sculpture or writing because we feel that within the frame of that particular medium we can best express whatever it is we have to say.
The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically - that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.
By varying the position of his camera, his camera angle, or the focal length of his lens, the photographer can achieve an infinite number of varied compositions with a single, stationary subject. Within the limits of his medium, the photographer can depart from literal recording to whatever extent he chooses.
The vast number of controls available often act as a barrier to creative work. The fact is that relatively few photographers ever master their medium. Instead they allow the medium to master them and go on an endless squirrel cage chase from new lens to new paper to new developer to new gadget, never staying with one piece of equipment long enough to learn its full capacities, becoming lost in a maze of technical information that is of little or no use since they don’t know what to do with it.
To consult rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection and after-examination, and are in no way a part of the creative impetus. When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial clichés.
Only long experience will enable the photographer to subordinate technical considerations to pictorial aims. With practice this kind of knowledge becomes intuitive; the photographer learns to see a scene or object in terms of his finished print without having to give conscious thought to the steps that will be necessary to carry it out.
Photographer Edward Weston