Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Forget Where You've Been and Improve Your Photography

By Jeff Grandy
I've been enjoying photography for over thirty five years but, whenever I was asked in a workshop how to become a better photographer, I found it hard to give a short answer. There are so many little things that, put into practice and repeated over time, have improved my images. One of them, though, stands out: I often needed to forget where I'd been in order to improve my photography.

I had only been photographing seriously ('seriously' meaning I bought a decent camera) for a couple of years in 1978 when I moved to Yosemite. I got a job, was paid a pittance, could barely afford film, but it was, after all, Yosemite. So, I naturally made my made my tripod holes in the soil at the same places everyone else made their tripod holes and started to make my photographic mark in the world. Really, how could I miss? Just look at the subject matter! Ansel Adams was here and look what he did, without color no less! I could point my camera anywhere…east to Half Dome…north to Yosemite Falls…west to Cathedral Rocks…south to Sentinel Rock…up to El Capitan…down to the Lupines…I pointed and shot, pointed and shot, as much as my non-existent budget would allow. I had a blast.

Some of you may know that the business originally owned and operated by Ansel and Virginia Adams is still doing business in Yosemite Valley. It's still owned and operated by the family, and this is where I'd bring my film to be processed. I'd hand my Kodachrome 25-24 exposures over to William Neill, who has long since moved on to photographic greatness, and wait a week to get it back. All photographers know that feeling of anticipation when new rolls of film come in. There were masterpieces in that yellow box! There had to be!

After my first few rolls, studied through the orange light in the mini TV screen of my slide viewer, a pattern began to emerge. A pattern that, at the time I was certainly conscious of, but just barely. My images just seemed to be missing something. There was a distinct lack of masterpieces. It's not that I didn't like any of the images because, after all, there was Half Dome, I had a Minolta and a tripod, I shot Kodachrome 25, and I paid attention to the light meter. Of course I liked a lot of the images because it was a beautiful place and I lived here now. And, when I brought my images home to Connecticut and gave a slide show on the big screen, people wowed. Still, just under the surface of my limited photographic experience, I sensed my images lacked a certain something. I knew it, but I couldn't put it into words.

Years later I found myself behind the same film counter where I passed my film to William Neill, myself now working in the Ansel Adams Gallery. I had, by then, upgraded my old Minolta to a wonderful Contax RTS2 and burned through a whole lot more film, now in the green box. Looking back, I was getting more full of myself and my photographic ability than I had a right to be. I remember one of the photographers the gallery represented told me that it would take ten years after starting photography to even start to be any good. I just figured he was a slow learner, but he was right.

The gallery represented the work of some very talented photographers. Robert Glenn Ketchum was there, William Neill, Huntington Witherill and, of course, Ansel's work was everywhere. I was surrounded daily by talent and wonderfully expressive photographic prints. I had the odd feeling that I'd lived this photographic awakening before, when I moved to Yosemite and saw the view of the Valley for the first time. I had to ask myself if my own images really measured up to the images I was surrounded by. I answered, "Maybe..." with more blind hope than conviction. I also realized what a great opportunity it was to have this daily, visual photographic bar before me to see if my own work could jump as high or stand as tall next to photographers whose work I admired. It was more valuable for my photographic awareness and advancement than I ever could have realized.

Every four to six weeks Glenn Crosby, the gallery curator, would hang a new show on the wall. I'd look at those images all day long. I'd watch other people looking at the images all day long. I'd watch to see which images people would pause in front of and wonder why they did. Was it because a scene was simply familiar? Was it because an image was taken at a beautiful place like Yosemite or Bryce Canyon or Vermont in the autumn? Or, was it an image of a beautiful thing like Half Dome, a waterfall, the full moon, or a rainbow? The answer was sometimes, maybe, and not necessarily. Oddly enough, the fact that I couldn't put into categories the reason why people reacted positively to an image was very helpful. It helped me understand why I often had a feeling that my own images didn't measure up.

The first thing I started to realize was that it doesn't matter how hard I worked to find an image, or how beautiful the subject was, or how very perfect the day was when I took the picture. If this mattered at all, every image of mine should be a winner. I worked hard to find good and interesting compositions, and I didn't really care to photograph ugly things, and I liked the photographic process so I enjoyed my shooting days, but far too many pieces of film ended up in the trash at the end of an editing session. So what should have been obvious years before finally sunk in. It doesn't matter even a tiny bit how great the subject is. It doesn't matter that I have a great story to go along with the image. It only matters what ends up on the film.

If any of that mattered, then the people I watched every day should have stood riveted in front of every image of Half Dome, or of a rainbow, or of a full moon in the sky above Delicate Arch, but they didn't. They only stopped and stared at the images that had something extra, no matter what the subject. So yes, composition matters, quality of light matters, exposure matters, focus matters, photographic skill matters, but what matters the most is whether or not all of these things combine in some mysterious mixture of light and silver particles to look good on the film.

Think about your image hanging on a gallery wall. Maybe 90% of the people looking at your image are strangers to both you and your subject. You're not there to tell them why you like the image, or why they should like the image, or what a fun time you had while capturing the image. They weren’t there when you took the picture, and can’t know all the emotions that come from being in a beautiful place and making photographs. The only know what they can see communicated in the print. The people come in, they walk to your work, they either react to it positively, negatively, or indifferently. How can you increase your odds? Maybe, as I said, you need to forget where you've been.

How do I forget where I’ve been? One way is I often wait to get my film processed for at least several months. It kills me to wait, but my goal is to view my image more as a stranger would. The longer I wait, the more the memories of the day I took the image begin to fade. I try to forget where I've been, and become detached from the experience, which lets me better judge the photo on it’s own merits. This way, when I get my film back and turn into a ruthless, scissor wielding editor, I see my images fresh. I'm not nearly as influenced by the mood of the day I took the image. The film has to speak with it's own voice, just as the print will have to speak to a complete stranger in the gallery. Doing this helps me put aside the visceral experience of snapping the shutter, as well as my undeserved ego, and concentrate on the end result, the piece of film on the light table. That's it. Move beyond the memory.

If you don't find some way to view your own work more as a stranger then the next step, getting a good print, could be very frustrating. Fighting to make a great print from a mediocre image is not fun. Big prints show every bit of the good, bad, and ugly. If you want it to show the good, make yourself really see that piece of film. Did you really get what you were looking for, or not? Be honest with yourself. If you didn’t get the photo, oh well, move on. Tough luck and all that. Get over it. I don't care how much that first class ticket to Tahiti cost, if the coconuts are out of focus, too bad. My own biggest failures as prints were the images I decided, after a lot of photoshop struggle, were images I only wanted to succeed because I had some soft spot in my heart for the area I'd photographed, or the experience of making it. But, in reality, the image just didn't rise above the rest in any meaningful way.

In the end, take lots of photographs and make yourself a ruthless editor of your own work. When you find yourself attracted by a great print of an anonymous scene, take the time to study that image and understand what made you stop and stare. This is ultimately how you want someone to react to your work. It's worth thinking about. Forget where you've been, and let the image speak with it's own voice. If you can't hear it talking, it might not have much to say. Then, when you really have a solid feeling that the image has begun to transcend the ordinary, you'll want to get it printed in a way that keeps that mood. But that's a story for another day.

Happy Shooting!

Jeff Grandy