By Ken Tanaka
Here we are in the traditional month for self-assessment and the concomitant vows for change and improvement. Photography is such a natural subject for this ritual. So I thought I'd devote my first monthly TOP column to a few self-assessment topics and some potentially inertia-disruptive ideas. If you're comfortable with your photography or simply have no interest in contemplating changing what you're doing then please just carry on, with my best regards, and look for my February column.
For everyone else, here are a few thoughts and suggestions that might prompt you to turn a new page with your camera this year. And, yes, each of these questions and subjects is drawn principally from my own ongoing self-audits and practices.
How do you feel?
This may seem an odd question but the answer is fundamental to realizing how you can best pursue photography. How is your health? How's your weight, your energy, your mobility, and most importantly your eyesight? Are you unrealistically pursuing a style of photography that's become too physically demanding for you? I don't mean just arduous treks with heavy kits but also long hours on your feet in a studio or darkroom.
More than ever, photography offers virtually everyone with eyesight the opportunity to participate. Indeed, today's small, light, powerful cameras enable you to achieve spectacular success even with rather restrictive physical limitations. You no longer have to carry heavy camera kits to get good technical-quality imagery. So if you've not already done so, now's a good time to evaluate if your equipment, subjects, and style are really good choices for your age and physical condition as well as for your goals.
Are you dead-ended?
Have you been hammering the same type of nail with the same type of hammer and producing the same results for years? Thwack, thwack, thwack. If that's what you enjoy, or it's what you have to do vocationally, more power to you. Otherwise, it's probably time to change your tune. Peter MacGill, of the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York, knew Harry Callahan quite well and recalls him saying that when he hit a dead end he either changed the subject or changed the camera. Not a bad strategy.
Are you really paying attention to your own work?
Many golfers spend great amounts of time (and money) analyzing their swings in search of performance-sapping flaws. Digital photography and powerful image management tools such as Lightroom and Aperture enable you to do the same, and better, for your photography. Do you realize that you can easily run a query in Lightroom that asks a complex question such as, "How many 3-star (or higher) images did I take last year with my _______ camera and 24mm lens?" Try doing that with your slide and negative collection! More importantly, you can also very quickly assemble "collections" of your images based on such technical (EXIF) queries, on keyword searches, or just by simply placing images into a collection.
This type of facility is not only a tremendous image management system, it's also an incredibly powerful "golf swing" analyzer that was only a dream 10+ years ago. It can, for example, certainly help you determine if you've reached "dead ends." Are you using such a tool to its fullest advantage to study your own work? If you're only using Lightroom or Aperture as Raw converters and print-pushers you're badly short-changing yourself.
'Painting' your pictures
Photography, at least as practiced casually, is largely an exercise in exclusion. Your frame crops the world. Conversely, painting and drawing are all about inclusion and rendering. Figurative painters must decide not only what to include on the canvas but also how to organize and tonally "light" those elements. That level of visual sensitivity, once acquired, tends to really pay off in photography. It's long been my observation that nearly anyone with good training in painting and drawing will almost immediately surpass the camera work of even a relative photo veteran without such training. It just imparts a keener eye for organizing elements in space.
So if you've not had the benefit of any formal art instruction consider getting some. Don't be discouraged if you suck at drawing or painting. You probably will. If it was easy Pope Julius II would have hired a relative to paint the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. You're not trying to train your hands at this point but, rather, your eyes and brain. I can almost guarantee that $1 invested here will be vastly more beneficial than the same $1 spent on new gear.
What are you lookin' at?
Speaking of the broader art arena, do you spend all of your lookin’ time staring at photos? If so consider devoting more attention to other art media. You may not immediately see how studying, for example, Mannerist or Baroque paintings could improve your photography, but many can actually be very powerful lessons on gesture, proportion, disclosure, and spacial hierarchy, particularly if you mainly photograph people. Similarly if you want to photograph the wind you'll want to study Winslow Homer, who solved the visual problem of painting it. If you want to see the work of a real modern day (20th century) Renaissance artist you’ll want to spend time with Charles Sheeler. He’s among my favorite American modernists because he worked both on canvas/paper and on film, often solving complex visual problems on parallel media.
Get your camera money's worth
The dogma of using only camera-Raw image files was well-founded in the days when in-camera processing produced horror shows and anything shot higher than ISO 200 looked like pointillism.
But those days are gone. Many billions of yen have been invested over the past few camera generations to super-charge the image processors in even rather humble cameras. Indeed, a substantial slice of the R&D budgets for new cameras is earmarked for refining and improving the in-camera processors. And these investments have delivered some truly striking results with nearly sci-fi class image capture automation aids and processing sophistication. To completely ignore these facilities on today's cameras is to discard a big portion of their intrinsic value. Yes, there are times when a Raw file is a must-have. But the plain, blasphemous truth is that most of your images might be better, and more practically handled by your camera's own processor, at least as a starting point. It probably knows much more about what needs fixin' than you do. Wasn't it Ctein who recently remarked here that nobody cares how much time you spent on an image? He is right.
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I hope that at least one of these ideas helps to nudge you toward at least a slightly richer photography experience in 2012.
Ken Tanaka's monthly column on TOP appears in the middle of each month.
A little more information and inspiration for your cogitation:
Henry Wessel Interviews
Henry Wessel is among my favorite photographers. He's not quite as well known or as dealer-hyped as many of his contemporaries from the 1970s. But his eye is at least as keen as anyone's and he's quite a lively articulator of his work. I've never had the chance to meet him but I feel I know him through many brief interviews such as these 2007 clips produced for his SFMoMA retrospective. He's an inspirational "Frank Buck" with a camera.
You want "different"? Here 'tis. Slinkachu is a British photographic artist whose specialty is creating and photographing miniature installation sets in cities throughout Europe. Very different, very clever stuff requiring both conceptual vision and good camera craftsmanship.
Big Bad City (book)
The Economist: More Intelligent Life (2009 [?] interview)
Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard (Phillips Collection) I suggested trying to envision and construct your photographs in a more painterly process. This book, the catalog for a current exhibition, presents the parallel concept: late 19th century painters who embraced and integrated the new medium of photography into their work as painters. Fascinating stuff.
The exhibition opens at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Feb 4–May 6, 2012.
Charles Sheeler: Across Media This is an excellent catalog from a seminal 2006/2007 exhibition of Sheeler’s work and a perfect single-resource to become familiar with Sheeler.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by G. Con Gomez: "Great article. I just checked out Charles Sheeler and Winslow Homer and was again reminded how little I know about the world in general. So many intellects, so much art and knowledge, so much that can make my world better and I am saddened because I will never know it all. Maybe that's a good thing, though—I can always find something that will make my heart beat a little faster. Articles like yours apropos to passion, self discovery and knowledge will always be appreciated."
Featured Comment by Doug Reilly: "Ken, I really appreciate your paragraph on in-camera processing. That's one of the parameters I judge and choose cameras on. I want to be able to get a good JPEG out of the camera and if I can, well, that's less time I spend in post processing. Using cameras with good JPEG engines, I often cannot top them when trying to work from Raw. That might just mean I'm bad at post-processing. But I also don't enjoy that aspect of photography as much as the recording of the image, so the less time I spend doing that, the more time I have to shoot. And JPEG profiles are like film to me, each with their own character. Good ones (like the ones produced by the Epson R-D1 for example) are something to savor."