Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Getting to Know You

I have long held the belief, and blathered about it, that one can't really shoot a thing without having some relatively long exposure to the thing. You can't really shoot a credible portrait without getting to know the subject, you can't really shoot landscapes or urban studies without having been on site for a while, and so on.

It stands to reason, I think. If you have not managed to put together your own personal idea of the subject, your own fairly clear set of ideas and opinions, then what can you shoot? You can shoot Standard Portraits of a person you have no idea of, but the pictures will look like Sears Portrait Studio pictures. You can shoot landscapes anywhere, and they will look pretty much like landscapes anywhere else. You can make the cliched shots of The Place (the Eiffel tower, a gondola passing under a bridge, the fair copy of Ansel Adams). Or you can shoot your own thing. If you do semi-abstract urban things, you can probably shoot them almost anywhere urban, and they'll look pretty much the same (and you might just as well have stayed home).

It's only when you've formed an idea of the subject that you have anything in particular to express that involves both you and the subject.

Now, with people, you can formulate an idea in a few moments, sometimes. Or a few hours. We're wildly social animals, and most of our brain appears to be devoted to the process of forming opinions about other people.

Places aren't as easy. Places are big, and have many facets. The exist throughout the day, through the seasons. There's a lot to, say, Chicago. Getting hold of Chicago in any meaningful way is likely to take years.

In between, there are things. This flower, that car, the other shed. These too exist at night as well as the day, in winter as well as summer, but they are less far flung at least.

I've recently been experimenting with this Buddhist idea of presence, of being present, and of some sort of thing related to suchness which for our purposes we might as well read as the essence of the thing. These are ideas that loads of photographers have written about in one way or another, usually not using these Buddhist terms. Meisel's gesture is much related to suchness, just as a single example. Other photographers speak of the essence of a thing, and so on. The Buddhists, at least some of them, have actually written down methods for getting at these things, which makes them interesting to me.

Breathe. Be aware of your breath. Be still, be calm, clear your mind. Now look, and see. Keep breathing.

I was in a new place recently, and gave it a whirl. I spent 10 minutes or so breathing, and looking, trying to find some little slice of the suchness of the place. I didn't really succeed in making any pictures that work for me, but I certainly saw much more deeply than I normally would. I almost felt like this could be possible. It was really just this experiment, done over again, in a place.

And so, I back off slightly from my militant Adventure Photography Sucks position.

You're not going to grasp Ethopia in one 10 day whirlwind tour of 6 different areas. No way, no how. But you might, you just might, grasp a little bit of the essence of this thing, this building, this person, this alley, and shoot a couple pictures that are worthwhile. Pictures that include you, and the subject, that express some sort of personal idea and opinion.

I do think you might need to be silent and breathe for half an hour, though. Being hustled back into the Land Rover is probably not optimal. Maybe I will revisit my workshop and draft a new schedule.

Maybe if you get really good at it, it takes even less time?


  1. On the connection between various Buddhist practices and photography, I think I've mentioned Minor White before. White is pretty unfashionable now, but was once a Major Figure (he established the journal Aperture, for example). You might say he was the photographic wing of the Beat movement.

    I'm not particularly a fan of his own work, but his Zen-derived ideas and practices have been very influential, and worth checking out.


  2. As far as I'm concerned, I'd say that the necessity of repeated visits is a matter of fact. When I start to visit a certain place, I'm prepared to throw away almost all pictures taken during the first couple of months. Nevertheless, I believe that taking these pictures is necessary and unavoidable. It's not before it feels like visiting an old friend that satisfying pictures appear, and that an expressible concept takes shape.
    Additionally, for me walking is all important. This has nothing to do with "I had to carry 20 pounds of equipment 15 miles through the night and all I got was this boring sunrise" kind of shit; instead I'd consider it as a kind of contemplative activity and also as a "grounding" of sorts.

  3. I hear you. When I'm doing landscapes in a new place, I'm very very rarely looking for big pictures, I'm mostly looking at small things: leaves, stones, etc - ongoing themes. There are moment though, I suggest, when the gestalt of the place really comes together. In Portugal recently I spent a good hour or three on a beach that was heavily fogged. Everything was very indistinct, vague, low in contrast and honestly rather surreal. Fun in any case.

  4. Please forgive me if you've already received this comment (and you can delete the following). I've been having trouble with my main computer and so switched to my laptop. My original comment is as follows:

    "In response to your ending question, based on my experience as a 20+ year Buddhist practitioner (Vipassana), my answer is "No" (others may have a different experience). For about 10 years I immersed myself in marco photography during the most intense period of my practice life. I found the practice very complimentary and helpful. Later as I branched out into landscape photography, the practice served as a background (and grounding) for doing that work. There's lots of Buddhist photography sites around if you want to explore this relationship further. Just google Buddhist photography."

    1. Just fyi, I have no ability to edit comments on this platform. I can delete 'em or publish 'em, and that's it!

      I think it's best this way.

      Thanks for persisting and sharing your thoughts!

  5. I liked a comment I recently saw in "aperture #220" by Bruce Davidson:

    "Too much in photography is shoot and leave."