It’s funny how much can happen in a year. I’m still in some disbelief that I’m writing for Scott’s guest blog series. With that said, I would like to thank Scott and Brad for this opportunity. I’ve been a longtime fan of this series and it’s a real honor to now be a part of it myself.
Often times when I write about a topic related to Photography, the difficult task is not determining what my point is but rather how to most effectively communicate it. How do you even opine over something so subjective without instantly alienating at least a portion of your audience? I think the best start is to propose certain axioms that I try to live by with my photography:
- Unless being commissioned by a client, engaging in Photography is totally self-motivated. You frame, compose, shoot, and process for yourself and to your own taste.
- Growth of one’s ‘vision’ is not academically taught so much as it is shaped and evolved by experience, failure, success and repetition.
- The gift of a photo being ‘done’ according to the photographer is that it can, and should, be shared with the rest of the world.
Now, because I can only accurately talk about my own personal journey, let me share how I came to establishing these three statements for myself.
From One To A Million
For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that my growth as a photographer took many years (I started in 1997) and involved a lot of money spent developing images that were oh-so technically flawed. The first steps were relatively straightforward: learn and appreciate the holy trinity of Photography (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO), start practicing different methods of framing and composing a shot, and stop shooting in the ‘tourist’ position.
Growth was slow and it was very solitary. Shoot the film until empty, develop it, and study it. The Internet was around back then but Social Media and blogging were far from reaching that spark of critical mass. I had never enrolled in any photography classes, so feedback was really limited to the handful of college photographer friends with whom I felt comfortable enough sharing my work, and myself. But, I did grow from it. It was slow and frustrating but I did gain meaningful experience from it in terms of what my style was. I was the one determining what worked and didn’t work within my ‘vision’.
Flash-forward to ‘Today’ – we live in a time where the barrier to entry for an unprecedented amount of self-exposure is virtually non-existent. An Internet-connected device, a blogging platform & a few social media accounts and you are ready to broadcast yourself to millions of people. What’s more is that there are millions of other people also jockeying to broadcast themselves to millions of people. Blog posts, Twitter streams, and Facebook walls are riddled with everyone vying for everyone else’s attention.
Who Do You Do The Voodoo That You Do For?
There was a period of about three years when I gauged my personal success as a photographer by analytics, metrics, followers, comment numbers, and unique visitor counts because it seemed like these were the critical measurements to focus on. I had also enveloped myself around learning and trying to master the galvanizing technique of HDR Photography and tone-mapping. Everything I shot, discussed, and wrote about revolved around HDR. I even began a ‘365’-photo project where I posted a new HDR image every day on my blog. I was consumed and for a long while, it was very good to me. Slowly but surely, I was seeing stats go up, my media exposure was increasing, and I was being regarded as a bona-fide resource in this area of Photography. I was making a name for myself.
And then something happened around halfway through 2010. I began having this feeling of stagnation and automation. There was something missing from the equation that had previously always sparked my love of Photography. I had a routine: shoot, tone-map, stylize, blog, tweet, and post on wall. The blog comments and retweets came in and grew in frequency but even those began feeling automated. It was in this automation and routine that I realized it was stifling the growth and evolution of my photographic vision.
I let all of the exposure I had recently experienced give me a false sense of real growth as a photographer and I convinced myself that perpetually tone-mapping HDR images was the only way I would maintain this exposure. I was shooting and processing to feed that growth and not to feed my vision. At the time, I couldn’t begin to remember what it was like to shoot without bracketing or carrying a tripod and like all addictions, I really couldn’t see beyond it and then the tunnel vision set in.
And like an addict, I needed to find a significant ‘event’ where I could turn my life around. We were nearing the end of 2010 by that point, so I figured New Years Day would be as good a time as any to turn things around.
Evolution By Way Of Regression
For the past several years, my sole goal with my images was to retain every detail from the shadows through the highlights and everything in between. I convinced myself that my images had to be representative of what the human eye would see at the moment of exposure and not be limited by the digital sensor. I also focused exclusively on urban and abandoned areas, almost wholly abandoning any sort of landscape, portrait or nature scene because, hey, it seemed to fit this distorted formula for online success that I had.
So, I figured the easiest way to start growing was to go cold turkey. I began going on personal shoots with a camera, a lens or two, and nothing else. No tripod, no shutter release cable, no bracketing. I began focusing on appreciating and embracing blown out highlights and dark shadows. I was seeing shapes in the lack of tonality, rather than in the presence of it. I began learning more about Black & White Photography and enjoying the use of neutral density filters for Long Exposure Photography. I started embracing and really falling in love with the beauty of nature and landscape scenes, along with the nuances and complexities of portraiture work.
I was returning to the world I had forgotten when I was first starting out.
With HDR Photography, I got to a point where I was no longer experimenting in-camera and rarely made mistakes in terms of processing. I didn’t stumble and, as a result, I stopped learning. I forgot what it felt like to have that ‘Aha!’ moment when you figure something out that you did not previously know.
The Not-So-Trivial Pursuit of Photography
Writing this blog post gave me good reason to take pause and think about what I’ve done as a photographer, reflecting on my failures and accomplishments. When I first started out learning how to use a camera, I didn’t have any delusions about ‘going pro’, appearing as a guest blogger anywhere, or making a dime off of my work. I did it to become a better photographer. I knew that photography was what I was built to do and so, initially, it was all about the experience and gaining that second-nature, knee jerk reaction when working the camera. Ultimately, it was about being able to consistently make photos that I was truly happy with and nothing more.
Photography is very much like the playing piece in the game Trivial Pursuit in that it is comprised of many different ‘wedges’. You get these wedges through experience and knowledge. The key is not to stop when you think you’ve gotten that first wedge and all along the way in this pursuit, keep asking yourself “What is it that I’m trying to do here?” and “Who am I trying to do it for?” It wasn’t until I took a step back and really questioned myself that I realized what it is that I really want to get out of Photography.
Ask yourself these questions often and honestly. The answers may surprise you.
And please believe me when I say, “that is a very good thing.”