Sunday, January 31, 2010

"On Being a Photographer"

One of our weekend readings was a chapter from the book "On Being a Photographer" - a conversation between Magnum photographer David Hurn and the late photographer,professor, and author Bill Jay. The chapter is "Selecting a Subject", which touches on a crucial aspect of the photography process.

"The essential point (is) the subject matter you select must: a) fire your enthusiasm and curiosity for at least the length of time it will take to produce a meaningful body of work; b) lend itself to images, as opposed to words and; c) remain continuously accessible so that you can return time and again to the same topic whenever you wish or have time."

As photographers, we strive to live by this mantra. We know all too well what we produce if we don't follow these guidelines. That's not to say that everything we ever put in front of our lens always falls in line with this ideal, but it's what we want to accomplish in our search for meaningful photographic stories. I think the hardest part about this is taking the time for some introspection. That is - What does interest me. Sometimes I really don't know. There are sports, and people, and social issues, and places, but what about raw ideas? All too often the photographs we see in mainstream media are subject heavy. It's unfortunate, but it is also the nature of the medium. News photography, in this day and age, is the medium of death for meaningful photo-stories. You'd be hard pressed to find any in print in any given newspaper in the country. The death of the Rocky Mountain News sealed it.

"What is the alternative to an emphasis on subject matter? It is a frantic grasping for instant
gratification which all too often leads to works displaying visual pyrotechnics but of dubious depth and resonance. Photographers become pressured into a search for different-ness, a quest for new-ness which usually means an unusual technique: your dead-tree syndrome."

But how do we avoid this "dead-tree syndrome"? It can be very daunting to search for something new in photography without feeling like you are heading down a unlit path. If we are pressured into these things, yes, we usually, fail. But how can one find the environment which will sustain their lives, but still allow them the creative freedoms to search for the new and the different? If we devote our lives to a story, can we separate ourselves enough to still remain ethical "Photojournalists"?

"The fact is that all photographs, even of the most prosaic records of things, are subjective. They are made as a result of various decisions arising out of the mind of an individual. So inevitably that self will intrude on the picture-making process. It would be impossible to keep it out."

I found this quote to be a great summation of the idea that 100% objectivity is impossible. It is something that is often argued in the world of journalism. I think, as a photojournalist, once you come to this realization, you are free to let yourself explore the world more intimately. Of course, certain ethical rules still apply, but the idea of "objectivity" that was pounded into our brains in the early years has since been molded into more of a guide, rather than a rule.

Check out the chapter I posted. Bill Jay is sorrowfully missed in the photographic community and it is great to read his thoughts on photojournalism.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Lenswork and Bird by Bird

For our reading discussion this week, we listened to some audio of Lenswork publishing editor Brooks Jensen, as well as diving into Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird".

"Success happens when opportunity meets preparation"

The opening quote of Jensen's podcast is a quote from Vince Lombardi, and re-quoted by Ansel Adams. However, Jensen goes on to say that, while it has merit, it has it's counterpart as well. That "Talent" is what differentiates one artist from another. Hard work definitely plays into it, but it's the genius of "Talent" that counts. But is it?

Jensen questions the assumption and I happen to agree with him. This idea that talent is the only way to get somewhere seems rather farfetched. I like the "10,000 hour" rule that is brought up, where, if any one person were to devote 10,000 hours to one particular skill or craft, they could achieve a relatively high level of proficiency. I feel that that assertion is correct. Given the opportunity to devote 10,000 hours to any one skill, I personally think I could become rather good at whatever it was. That's is roughly 416 days worth of practice. I don't care how bad you are at something, with that amount of time you could train yourself, as well as learn your potential, to a very large extent. I think it's evident in lots of photographic work, too. We are told time after time that it is going to take a few years before we truly begin to see our own "style". Yes, we may be unique already, but you still have to crank out those 10,000 hours before your "talent" can be properly honed in.

"Bird by Bird" looks to be an inspiring book. It is a guide for writers, but the words "write" and "writing" can be easily interchanged with "Photograph" and "Photographing". We've only read into it a little bit, but Anne Lamott is very good at laying out a way to adjust your psyche to deal with the stresses of "writing". We all take photos because we feel the NEED to. I liken it to the show Dexter - while it may be "wrong" to kill, Dexter HAS to. For us, it may be a poor career choice to some, but we don't care, we HAVE to photograph. Success rates are small and the payout is smaller, but somewhere in our minds it doesn't matter. We have a drive not for money or success, but a personal fulfillment to satisfy. Why? Who knows. While Lamott had her influences, we all had ours. In fact, you can read how everybody in my class got started on our class blog. It's interesting to see the differences and similarities in how our drive was born.

I also found this photo the other morning while wasting time on the internet. The man in the photo is photography, and we are the monkeys. Sometimes we love it, feed off it, and long for it. Other times, we want to beat it with a large stick.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

New York Times: SUMO

For my Capstone class, called "Picture Story and the Photographic Essay" we'll be posting to our blogs almost weekly. It's won't always be photos that I've taken, because most of our assignments are more long-term. However, that means we'll be looking at other peoples works and talking about story and style.

I found a slideshow/essay on the New York Times, published January 24th, 2010, on Sumo Wrestling in Japan. I found the coverage to be different that what I thought it would be. When I think of sports, I often picture peak action moments, but photographer Ko Sasaki showed us a little more. It's a mini essay on Sumo's presence in Japanese culture. What strikes me the most is the parallel you can see between American sports and Japanese Sumo. The 3rd photo can be seen in any sporting event, yet it is unique and speaks for the culture of Sumo. The 7th photo also caught my attention. Again, it speaks to a culture that is similar in many ways to our own, but completely different. Most American pound hotdogs and beer, but you'll never see a platter of sushi at a Yankees game. I find that the essay is presented in a much more comprehensive manner than most essays/stories that come out of sporting events.

Photo © Ko Sasaki for the New York Times