The reason I put up that "Zen of Fishing" post yesterday was because of something Ken Tanaka said—he pointed out that if we were going to talk about "the ones that got away," we should also talk about the pictures we get because of serendipity—essentially, luck. In photography, you miss a lot—you have to—but you also get lucky sometimes, and that makes up for it. In the nice video of the truly great National Geographic photographer William Albert Allard that Joseph Brunjes contributed to the discussion, Bill Allard elaborates on the same theme. He knows what he's talking about, of course, as anyone who is familiar with his work knows.
So for this post, I tried to find some pictures of mine that came about by getting lucky—things I just happened to see because I was "out and about" with a camera and happened to come across them. But of course half my boxes are still in the barn from my move at the end of last summer, and I couldn't put my hands on the prints I needed. Don't know what I am going to do about that.
Everybody has different ways of practicing photography. Everybody has different aims and goals, and different ideas of success. That's okay, of course. And I never mean to dictate to anyone how they ought to work or how they ought to feel about things. A common leitmotif of writing about photography is that people jump to the assumption that we're asserting status-oriented claims about what's good and what's bad—as if, when we dispute it and settle it between ourselves, it would matter. It doesn't. You should have strong ideas about where you stand—I guarantee almost every artist does—but other people are going to go right on doing whatever it is they do. Even if their ideas are all wrong and they don't know a teakettle from a teacup. :-)
But if I can get back on topic, my idea of photographing really is that it's very much like fishing, if you can ignore the ethical and qualitative differences between "catching a prize fish" and "making a great photograph." It's not the metaphor of the end result but the metaphor of the process of getting to the end result that's rich. Photography essentially is serendipity. You put yourself in the middle of your story, in Bill Allard's fine phrase, but even then you really don't know what you're going to find, what pictures you're going to be able to come up with. The question of why some photographs work and other, similar photographs don't work seems simple enough, but only on a superficial level. Go to a deep enough level and it is profoundly a mystery.
Well, I've just taken ten times too many words to say what Ken and Bill said much more simply. Yeah, we miss a lot of shots sometimes—but then other times, we get something great that we didn't expect couldn't have foreseen. So it goes both ways.
Sorry I can't show you my modest examples.
(Thanks to Ken, Joseph and, indirectly, William Albert Allard)
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Featured Comments from:
Steve Rosenblum: "'Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés' —Louis Pasteur. Translation: "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind." It's easier to be lucky if you are prepared to take advantage of your luck. In my opinion, this is undeniably true in almost every discipline whether it be artistic, scientific, or otherwise."
Jeff Buttel: "A friend of mine studied with Harry Callahan in the '60s, and shared this quote with me. 'I'm a very lucky photographer. And the more photographs I take, the luckier I get.'"
Bruce Bordner: "I have one 'lucky catch' that perhaps is less impressive without the story. Look first: I'll wait. OK, nice shot, but...? Complex story; sorry. August 2010, Quebec lower city, simultaneous French Heritage and Pirate festivals—a target-rich environment. I was stalking the group of pirates for a while. (Nikon F100, Fuji Velvia 100?, Nikon 18–35mm) The crowd was very dense in the narrow streets, so I could only see heads. The locals were mostly costumed, but we tourists were anti-photogenic.... Suddenly the group of French Ladies appeared from the other direction, and the Pirates went in for a taste. My camera was on my face without thinking... Just as the two groups merged, the crowd parted and click and then it all dissolved and we all went our separate ways. As you've said, one's memories of the event add more to our own appreciation of a shot. To me, this is one of my best images, but perhaps not for artistic reasons."
Dennis Dunkerson: "Perhaps because I do both, I am hooked on the fishing analogy. There are several parallels. Some fish to hang their capture on the wall (Artists); some eat their capture (Professional or Starving Artist?); while others put them back (masses of unseen digital photos). Then there are those that do not really fish that much but prefer to collect thousand dollar rods, lures, fly tying equipment, boats and special fishing clothing. Somehow a good analogy never seems to end."
Yonatan K: "One of my favorite pictures was exactly as you (and Ken) describe. I was out for a walk with my son and a camera and we saw a bunch of pigeons behind a local grocery store (I've had a pigeon picture fetish since childhood). The resulting photograph was a collaboration—my son charged the pigeons and as they took flight, I snapped the photo. I don't know that I would describe it as great in any objective sense, but I like it (in no small part because of the collaborative aspect)."
Mike replies: I like it too. (I did a project in art school, part tongue-in-cheek like most things I did back then, called "The Great Pigeon Safari.")
Manuel: "I discovered William Albert Allard about a year ago, and he became one of my favourite photographers instantly. The video you linked to is quite an inspiration, but when I look at some of W. A. Allard's best pictures, I see the outcome of careful preparation and more than a little bit of patience. In particular, Mr Allard has a keen eye for composition, and it's clear he knows how to wait until everything falls into place to form a significant composition. Sometimes you have to wait for that 'decisive moment' to happen. It might take several minutes, or it can occur in an instant; sometimes it happens right in front of your eyes, sometimes you just have to look for it. Either way you have to be properly trained in order to recognize such scenic organization when it happens. I guess this can only come out of experience. It has little to do with luck: even when it looks like a fluke, it really isn't: you were there, and you were ready to see that significant composition forming in your viewfinder. Joseph Brunies' quotation of Seneca says it all."