The "Photography and Procrastination" post the other day was popular and got a lot of attention. I was elaborating on Jay Maisel's idea of "shoot it now."
But there's a parallel or complementary idea that goes along with this, and it's this: get out there, and good things will happen. When you get equipped for going out photographing, and go put yourself in one of the situations that tend to make you happy when you've got a camera in your hand, you'll get something.
Even if you don't know what it's going to be.
You don't necessarily need a plan. Your don't need an idea. Just get out.
There's an idea afoot recently that creativity benefits from being treated like work. I have a couple of quotes taped to my computer: "A man may write at any time if he will set himself doggedly to it," which is Dr. Johnson quoted by Boswell; and the characteristically more pithy "Do your work," which is a quote from David Vestal. Sometimes, just slogging along and grinding it out will lead to creativity and positive accomplishment. The only essay that I ever read that was worth a damn as guidance for writers is a thing called "The Getaway Car" in the book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. In it, she points out that if you want to be a writer, the very first thing you need to be able to do, the essential requirement, is to sit down and write for an hour a day for thirty days straight. If you can't do that, you're not going to get there. No matter how much you study and prepare.
These things translate to: get going. Get out there even when you don't feel like it.
Do your work.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ralph Gibson for Camera and Darkroom many years ago, in Manhattan. Ralph might need an introduction to younger photographers, but probably not to older ones. He's a fine (I mean outstanding) art photographer with a distinctive high-contrast B&W 35mm style ("I like a negative that fights back," he told me), so identified with Leica that Leica put out a special-edition camera as a tribute to him. In his darkroom he printed with an old Leitz enlarger that happened to be the very same enlarger on which Robert Frank, a mentor and friend of Ralph's, printed the original repro prints for the book The Americans.
Later we went out, and I accompanied him to lunch. Ralph took along a Leica M6 that had a braided leather lanyard as a strap, and only a 90mm Elmarit. As we ate lunch—baskets of steamed vegetables at a café called the NoHo Star—can you tell this visit made an impression on me?—I asked Ralph what he was planning to shoot.
Alas, I cannot remember exact quotes; my mind doesn't work that way and I never trained it to, more's the pity. But he said something like, "I've been doing this long enough that I know that whenever I get out and start looking around, I'll get something. I don't know what, but I'll come back with some good pictures."
(Sorry to paraphrase. That was the gist.)
By the way, I made no impression on Ralph. The next time I ran into him, he didn't remember me.
Anyway, I used to say that photography was like jogging. There's no such thing as "quality time" with jogging. It's more like just...time. Get out and put in the miles and it'll give back. You'll get benefit back out of it. (The trouble with the analogy is that it provokes runners to start arguing the fine points of training, and believe me, it's better to not go there.)
Photographing is like that, though. Get out of the house with a camera. Be playful; be open-minded; look around; try stuff. You'll find something.
Always a caveat
I suppose I ought to add that you still have to be perceptive about what situations work for you. I like to photograph people and animals best—something happening—and I'm happiest doing portraits. I'm always aware that when I just go for a walk and photograph found scenes that it gives me a sort of nagging dissatisfaction. It's because I'm not shooting what I really want to shoot. I'm only shooting what's available to me. To me, lots of photographs of landscapes and streetscapes feel like settings—that is, they're like a stage with no actors on it. I yearn to see people there somehow. I have a friend who feels the opposite. He likes arrangements of objects and static scenes, and the presence of humans "ruins" pictures for him. I'll wait for a person to appear in a shot; he'll wait for the people to leave.
We're all different, and respond differently to different shooting opportunities. Nobody will tell you what you respond to and what makes you happy when you're photographing. You have to figure that out for yourself. Get out of the house, yes, but you do have to be smart, too, and put yourself in situations that are amenable to your vision. Target-rich environments, in the jargon of the Gulf War.
We can't always do that. But in general the rule holds—the more you get out there, the more likely you are to find good photographs. So get the heck out there!
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Featured Comments from:
Stan B.: "It really is like fishing, you go out where you hope they're biting with no guarantee whatsoever. And often, you just end up buying a burger on your way home (i.e., you sit yourself down and peruse someone else's work to fill the void of coming home empty-handed). Fate doesn't care how well prepared you are, how well studied, well equipped, or sincere you are—sometimes the moment comes on your way to get a coffee on the corner during break. Did you get it? Or did you think it would happen only when you deemed it to? Sometimes the stars align, everything checks and you get your prize; it's an intermittent gambler's high, the most addictive there is."
Ed Kirkpatrick: "I am like your friend; I wait for the scene to revert to its natural state with no human sign. I am uncomfortable photographing people for some reason. I would like to do it more but it just doesn't come naturally to me. Landscapes, those I see by the dozens every day. As I travel around the country in my RV I get a chance to shoot most days. I don't even think about it any more, it just happens. I have learned that the best shots happen when you left your camera home so I always have mine with me. It's true, get out and do it."
Mike replies: As a coda to today's post, today I walked my two miles along my lakefront road—it is a wild, blustery Fall day, with roiling clouds and gusting winds and kaleidoscopic shafts of sunlight. Of course I saw an absolutely wonderful picture...created just for a few minutes by the shifting light on the far side of the lake. Not only did I not have a camera with me, but I don't even own a lens of the right focal length (about 135mm-e, I would estimate) to have shot it. Serves me right for not taking my own advice? I stood there and stared for as long as it lasted.
Jim Richardson: "Certainly there is much virtue in trusting to serendipity, which is also a kind of deeper faith, that the world has wonders waiting for you if you just go looking for them. (And that you will never know they exist if you don't go.) But there is danger there, too, that you'll be contented to just take whatever comes along, either in the way of the subjects that present themselves or (more perilously) in your willingness to settle for your first impressions. Too many of the stories photographers tell me about their pictures are shaggy-dog tales of lucky moments with a camera or curious twists of photographic fate.
"In the end I find myself more drawn to photographers who treat their craft like a great string quartet treats a work by Mozart, going back to it over and over again until the first flush of virtuosity gives way (perhaps after many years) to deep insight. It is not a relaxing way to work; it is fraught with anxiety. I don't recommend it to anyone who want their photography to be relaxing. But if you seek the satisfaction of building a body of work over decades, then I think you have to consider it."
James Weekes: "A friend of mine, when he was young, was assigned jobs around the house by his father. One day he complained, as young boys do, about the onerous tasks and how hard they were. His father answered, 'Just do it until you get used to it.' That quote is up in my office and reminds me to go photograph."
Struan: "If I go for a walk with the main aim of taking photographs I usually end up reinforcing my worst bad habits. My photographs, especially those more creative, break-a-mental-block photographs, benefit more from an open, empirical bent and an emphasis on the walk itself rather than how it may or may not be a productive investment. Forcing myself to take photographs is the worst way I know of getting out of a photographic rut. Art galleries, books, conversation, or going for a walk without a camera are usually better ways of reminding myself why I take photographs and why it is worth persevering even when things don't look promising."
Mike replies: Point taken, but I'm not necessarily advocating just taking a walk. If you have a plan, you still have to work it ("plan your work and work your plan"). Whatever it is you do, whatever your plan is, you still have to get out there and get to it. Your suggestions are good too, but I believe if you're stuck, the best way to oil the gears and unstick the machinery is to go work. Whatever that means for each of us.
Stephen Scharf: "While I wholeheartedly agree with the 'Get the heck out' sensibility, I don't agree with not needing a plan. All my best work resulted when I got the heck with a plan."
Gary Nylander: "As a daily newspaper photographer, I am often tasked with finding a picture or two for the next day's paper, sometimes for the front page. I call them enterprise photos. I don't have a real plan, but I have found the best pictures come from walking around somewhere, street, park or whatever. With my personal work, sometimes I just get out of the house and get in may car and drive and go and photograph what I can see. Usually I have a place in mind which I often return to time after time, seeing it under different lighting and seasonal conditions."
Wesley Liebenberg-Walker: "I have been using (or trying to use) those words—'Get Out There'—as a sort of mantra lately. I apply them to the act of shooting something, but also to the act of being outside, in the real world, rather than inside, on the couch, in the virtual one. It works, mostly. Now if only I could get off the computer...."
Joe Holmes: "My favorite quote along these lines is from Chuck Close: 'Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.'
"The full context: 'I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. You sign onto a process and see where it takes you. You don't have to invent the wheel every day. Today you'll do what you did yesterday and tomorrow you'll do what you did today. Eventually you'll get somewhere. Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself. If you’re going to wait a around for the clouds to open up and lightning to strike you in the brain you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.'"