People, Places, Things
In reading Bill Jay's and David Hurn's On Being a Photographer, I was struck by Hurn's comments about shooting many photos of a static subject, but fewer of a moving one, which was much harder to get balanced and well-formed for the camera.
Static subjects with lots of subtle variation perfect for consumer digicams with their low cost-per-frame and inability to react quickly.
For moving, living subjects, regardless of the camera type, very often you get one shot and after that forget it. Frustratingly, consumer digicams are crappy at exactly this situation. In stead of one shot, you get zero shots. The solution? Pretend the problem doesn't exist.
There's even a tacit admission of this notion in a recent Olympus digicam advert, showing a shot from A Day in the Life of Africa and the photgrapher being quoted "please just stay right were you are for another second...."
The shot is completely empty, of motion, just a single figure standing at the corner. What was he waiting for? There can only be one possible answer: he was waiting for the camera to turn on.
Consumer digicams are perfectly capable of taking terrific pictures. Here are many, taken by Bee (mostly digicam shots, anyway). Heck, I've even made a few okay ones here and there myself. But it's surprising to me how the photos that are difficult to make with such cameras, nearly impossible sometimes, are passing out of vogue with nary a whisper.
As a small example, let's look at RussCam, one of my favorite photoblog sites. Dig around on RussCam there's lots to like.
Compare older images like this one, shot on 35mm, with series like these. The later photos have quietly adopted the conventions of the consumer digicam not just the 4::3 aspect ratio, but the longer lenses, static subjects, electronically-balanced color, and lots of macro.
What the new photos lose a grip on is spontaneity, the sort of you-can't-make-this-stuff-up chaos found in much of the best film-and-mechanics photography. I don't mean to be picking on Russ alone here, because it's a pattern I've been seeing propogated across the web.
Photographers are being incresingly disconnected from the unpredictable nature of people, & shooting more and more Things. A photo culture based on Things is crucially advantageous to the Photo Marketing Industry, of course more megapixels, longer zoom lenses, closer macros, these are quantifiable attributes that have come to define "quality" for many photographers of Things, and these are qualities that you can buy. Qualities that can't be handily quantified, that can't be made into a feature for the general consumer are ignored. Thus we still haven't seen a consumer digicam that is instant-on, or one with a genuine wide-angle lens, or one that can be set manually for quick, close-in shooting where the interaction betyween the photographer and the choatic unpredictable world of unposed and unprepped People is in full force.
Things are the easiest kind of photo, and Places likewise static, likewise amenable to the quantitative attributes of camera manufacturing are not far behind (though usually the genre mannerisms are stricter). Is it any surprise that in the past decade most stock photo houses have simply stopped accepting new landscape photos? Or that royalty-free catalogs are stuffed with generic colorful hills of Provence and Tuscany, black-contrasty graphic outlines of the Eiffel Tower and proud green night shots of Lady Liberty, with or without fireworks?
So many photoblogs and other photo sites have "About" pages, which begin with some variation of "I'm no professional photographer, but..."
...which I so often feel compelled to complete: "...but my thoughts have been completely pre-coded and locked-up by advertising and mass media, just like a pro."
"Professional" photography has its own suite of concerns. The needs and desires of the purchasers of "professional" photography the clients, the happy wedded couples, the aspiring models and actors have over-riding concerns that inherently co-opt the purposes of the photograher. The photographer is paid is made "professional," according to the standard definitions because she is renting-out her eye, her expertise, and her ability to make pictures that whose purposes and subjects are defined by someone else. Pros do it for money, and maybe squeak-through some art and entertainment value for themselves on the side (one recalls Leo Burnett's famous dictum at his advertising agency: "Anyone wins a Clio, they're fired!" because Burnett knew his business was not the creation of art awards, but the selling of soap and cigarettes).
If you are not a professional, and don't harbor fantasies of using your web site to become a professional, I challenge you: don't shoot like one. Chances are, it will only make you look impoverished or foolish.
Why is far more important than How in photography, despite the admonitions of journals like Popular Photography (which is in the business of selling magazine advertising space to Sigma and Nikon, not in the business of developing photographers or portfolios).
If it's your website, take a chance and make it yours. Let the question of why be one that you can answer from the heart, not from emulation of something you saw in a magazine or at a camera club.
If you can honestly answer why to yourself, your photography will have improved tenfold over what it was before, because suddenly you will be free to make pictures for your own satisfaction. Even if, once you have a grasp on your own desires, they lead you directly to the purest sort of chocolate-box photography. At least it's your box. Bon appetit!
June 25, 2003
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