Beyond creativity, or maybe before. It’s in there somewhere!

Arranging the set

It’s a given that photography as an art form is a creative thing. Even in it’s most scientific and commercial forms some creative license is usually found. But, no matter how it’s being used, photography is a technical skill too. The physics of recording light is always present. The usual path for a photographer is to master the technical so that they con concentrate on the creative. With today’s being sometimes smarter than the operator, the technical craftsmanship of photography is continuously being seen as less important. Personally I think this will be a dividing line in the future between amateurs and professionals. No longer will the price of equipment or how many trucks you can fill with gear be the badge of those who set out to master photography. But that’s a whole different issue for another time.

If you do think you want to reach for a higher level of technical skill here’s something to think about. A job of the photographer is to control the variables within the frame. Everything within that viewfinder is your absolute responsibility. No excuses allowed. If the angle isn’t right; you move or you move your subject. If the light isn’t right, change it. If the exposure isn’t right, it should be. You are also responsible for working within the physical constraints of everything within the frame. If you can’t change it you have to work around it. If there are a hundred people on set you are in charge of making sure that they are exactly where you want them to be when you trip the shutter.

Everything falls into two basic categories; things you can change and things you can’t. You can control you’re shutter speed, aperture, and usually ISO to a point. You can control when you take the photo. That ‘Decisive Moment’ that Cartier-Bresson talked about. Perhaps you can control where you stand, camera height, and camera angle. Flashes and lights can be moved and adjusted. There’s a thousand and one things you can influence. Choose wisely.

Then there are those things you can’t control. Weather, unexpected gear failure, people being late, etc. While you may not be able to really change those things you can usually find a way to work around them if you thing about it. Experience helps ease the process, but you only get the experience by dealing with the issue at some point.

A professional (not just identified by being paid, but by being skilled) controls the things they can control and doesn’t let the things out of their control, control them. Once you let the uncontrollable things take over, you have lost control of your set. If the sun is too bright and contrasty you find shade. If it’s raining you get under cover or inside. You have a backup plan, even if you don’t really know what it is you can make one on the fly. Maybe you have a cheap sync cord for when your pricey radio triggers fail. No matter what, you work around the problems so that they aren’t problems. Perhaps it’s knowing that it’s best to reschedule if possible instead of wasting more resources. No matter what though, you stay in control.

Don’t take this to mean that you have to be a master of every single nuance involved in a shoot. If you’re a travel photographer you’re not expected to fly the plane to get to your destination. Would anyone hire the pilot to take the photographs? But you are expected to gather the people around you that will fill in your weaknesses better than you ever could. You stay in control of you shoot by making sure others are controlling the variables for you. If you try to extend beyond your skill set, you start to loose control again. If you want to learn web design then by all means take the time to do it. If you want a well designed site to promote you photography by next week then you may want to pay someone to do it while you learn on your own. Otherwise you loose control over the quality of the presentation of your photography work because you didn’t work around your lack of skill in building websites.

As your skill set as a photographer expands and improves, so does the amount of things you can control. Late models or assistants aren’t an issue because you’ve built a reliable team; you know how much light you need and where you need it, you already know secondary places to go if something happens at your primary location. You’ve seen trouble and you’ve beaten it. You have the confidence to do it again without breaking a sweat. The average Joe that dropped the cost of a used car so he could have a ‘cool’ camera would be frustrated and clueless. The camera couldn’t outwit the situation for him.

So, plain and simple; learn control. Once you have control you expand the limits of creativity.


FYI- class this Saturday

If you have nothing to do this Saturday (and really, you should have something to do on a Saturday morning) I’ll be teaching a class on composition in photography for the Martha’s Bloomers Photography Club and Martha’s Bloomers in Navasota. 9am in the Arbor Room if your interested.

What we put into our pictures is our whole life

You know, what we put into our pictures is not a smart idea. What we put into our pictures is our whole life and our whole intellectual discourse. Everything we know and everything we have done and everything that’s in our history goes into every single picture we take.

– Fred Herzog

It’s Halloween

For a little Halloween fun I went with some members of Houston Photographic Society to shoot at Glennwood Cemetery in Houston on Saturday morning. We were hoping for fog, but a front blew through on Friday night and killed any chance for that happening. It was a beautiful morning though. That elusive Houston fall weather of a cool, crisp, morning followed by a pleasantly warm and sunny afternoon. I arrived a little before daylight and took a drive through the cemetery to get my bearings and spy anything that might have been of interest once the sun came up.

The cemetery itself is a true gem in the city. When it first opened in the 1870’s Houston residents considered it as much a park as a cemetery. The landscaping and architecture compliment the natural shape of the land there. Houston is pretty much a flat and boring landscape; Glennwood turns that idea on end. It’s fell into decay a couple times over the last 130 years of it’s existence. But, I think the caretakers have done a good restoration and improvement job over the last decade or so.

Photographically, I became bored with it quickly though. Yes, it’s a beautiful place. It should be a photographic playground. Maybe it is for most people; but not me. I guess it’s because I’ve seen so many photographs of picturesque places. Manicured landscapes dotted with memorials to the dead have been subjects for photographers since shortly after photography was invented. It’s an easy subject to shoot. The residents aren’t going anywhere so you have plenty time to construct the perfect image. Everyone with a camera who has come before you has had the time to construct the perfect image too.

But, thoughts lead to thoughts lead to ideas. As I was walking through looking for something unique to catch my eye I saw a woman in the distance placing flowers on a grave. not a new grave, but an old one. I don’t know that she was family. She had a pretty large assortment of flowers with her and only used a few. I think she may work for the cemetery and goes around making sure everyone looks fresh and cared for. It was a scene and impressionist or pictorialist photographer would live for. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t going to fill a morning.

It made me think though. Here I am, surrounded by man-made beauty working with nature. Chill air and a clear blue sky with the sun just starting to warm the places it’s rays touched. This place of clean wonder in a dirty city, built to memorialize those who have passed. I might have been standing there enjoying all the place and the morning had to offer, but it would only be for a moment. Everyone who visits the place only enjoy’s it for the moment. The dead though, they get to enjoy it for an eternity. I guess we don’t really know what the dead do, if anything. There are plenty of beliefs about that and you can insert your own into the story at this point. What I wondered though, is how do the dead enjoy this place if they can? Forever is a long time after all.

I didn’t really know of a way just yet of how to explore that question visually. I had to spur the thinking juices by just continuing walking, deeper into the cemetery. I trusted this place to provide me an answer. I came across a back-hoe parked on one of the paths that was being refurbished. The repair crew wasn’t there and the equipment was just parked for the weekend. Long past are the days when a gravedigger with a shovel dug the holes in a cemetery. Now, tools such as the back-hoe do the work. A tool such as this is one of the last things to do work for you. It makes a place for your last home, and seals you in it. Maybe, this was what the dead would see of the place? A utilitarian monster of a tool amid the delicate architecture of the and around it. I explored this with the camera, but it didn’t seem like the right answer either. The tools changed with the time. Someone from the 19th century would have no idea what the thing was. Death is something that transcends the millenniums.

So, I kept walking. Just beyond the construction equipment was a small group of headstones all with American flags next to them. They were a group of Union soldiers from the Civil War. Someone had been there recently and placed fresh flags next to the graves. Since I am a bit of a history buff, especially Civil War history, I had to take a few images. Looking at these old soldiers and thinking about my earlier questions my answer came to me. Maybe it’s just simple, we see what we have always seen. Straight ahead. I took my camera and put it on the ground looking up at the sky. What does Lt. Paine of the 7th Vermont Infantry see everyday? Yes, six feet of dirt would be the logical answer; but I was given to a bit of fantasy here. Straight up at the sky. A wide view of the world from a single place upon it.

Checking the screen on the back of the camera kind of surprised me. The ultrawide lens I was using not only saw the sky, but the headstone too. Every day Lt. Paine sees a reminder that his life is over. Beautiful blue sky shining through the trees, rain, snow, day, night; and always that reminder that he once was a soldier in a place and time far away. I didn’t find it bitter. Not so long before he got to see someone who never knew him in life, probably not descended from him, place a flag next to him. It may not be in view, but he was still thought about. What he did in life was worth remembering to someone.

After working out some of the technical details of making the photographs I set about trying to show as many of these ‘views of the dead’ as I could before the sun became too hard to deal with photographically. Glennwood has some once wealthy and influential residents. Their monuments ranging from solemn to garish. I wanted see how different some of these could look. Do you look up and wonder if your family didn’t care much about you because your stone is so plain? Do you wonder how you may have had a bit of ego when the twenty foot mountain of marble or granite was placed? Will you be jealous of the huge edifice next to you, or think it’s just preposterous? Maybe you will just enjoy the view.

I don’t know, maybe I just over thought the whole thing. Perhaps it’s just a silly flight of fancy wrapped up in a pretentious package. I know it’s not exactly ‘good’ photography. But maybe it is a cause to stop and think, at least, to think about how to take a different approach to a familiar subject. Maybe, it’s just my unconscious telling me to quit looking at what has been, and look up at what could be.

Froehlich’s Hardware

I had a little time today, so I took a trip into Rosehill to shoot something that’s been nagging at me. Froelich’s Hardware store. I remember when I was a kid going to the store with my dad a few times to have Norman make stuff for us. You see there was a blacksmith shop attached to the store. Outside of Amish country that was an anachronism even in the early 1980’s. I always loved watching him heat up a piece of steel and start hammering it into something, anything. I still enjoy watching a blacksmith at their work.

With the 4×5 loaded and ready I headed out after running a couple errands and picking up some tacos for lunch. I’ve discovered that people notice when you’re shooting large format. I had a couple people honk and wave as they drove by and one lady stop to talk and see the camera. It reminds me of my father-in-law talking about the universal club of the corvette. He says it never fails that when two corvette drivers pass each other on the road there’s always a nod and a smile exchanged. A sign of respect to the choice in cars. I guess the same thing applies to certain cameras.

Of course nothing ever goes easy. I have a few frames that didn’t turn out after development and I have no idea why this time. I think I may go back tomorrow if I have a chance and re-shoot them since it’s was shots I really wanted. But since I spent all afternoon developing and scanning them I at least wanted to share a what I did get.