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civilized ku # 134 ~ most girls just want to have fun

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A late August morning swim ~ Rome, NYclick to embiggen
A little while back I mentioned that I would write about developing a unique personal vision - something that many find difficult to do. IMO, I think that many have trouble with this simply because so much has been written about the subject and much of it is not on the same page, so to speak. Add to that the fact that much of what has been written has a slightly "fuzzy" - shoot, shoot, shoot, and it will come - aspect to it and you have a pretty good recipe for confusion / misdirection.

Of all of the opinions on the subject that I have read, it seems to me that one vital element has been missing - that of understanding the meaning in your pictures. Most advice really seems to aim at developing a style, something that may be part of the vision thing but something that should never be confused with vision.

Many are quite content to develop a recognizable and consistent style of their own and doing that is no small feat in and of itself. I mean, with the veritable flood of pictures that are being made these days, making pictures that visually stand apart from the crowd is a good thing and it is safe to say that many a shooter has built a reputation around just this idea alone.

But here's the rub with that - I can think of more than a few landscape photographers whose pictures I can instantly identify on a visual level but whose pictures are virtually indistinguishable from so many others on the level of meaning. This comes as no surprise to me because all of those picture makers say the same thing (or a variation thereof) when asked about why they make pictures. The nearly rote response is almost always,"Ain't the grandeur of nature just grand".

IMO, if that's as deep as your vision goes you're not exactly traveling in a rarefied circle of thought. You'll be sharing a bus with a lot of seats and that bus will be part of convoy of buses with a lot of fellow travelers. That said, it should be noted that the convoy will pass through a sea of picture-making humanity, all of whom wish they could be in one of those buses.

In any event, back to the vision thing.

IMO, most of the "standard" advise that has been proffered regarding developing a unique vision is sound advice - don't imitate, forget every picture you've ever seen when making your pictures, keep your equipment simple, know that equipment like the back of hand so you can make pictures without thinking about the gear, and make lots of pictures of something that interests you or of something that you are at least curious about.

However, one the things rarely mentioned with the preceding is the critical idea of making lots of pictures of something that interests you or of something that you are at least curious about without trying to make pictures with meaning. IMO, the #1 hurdle in the way of developing the vision thing is trying too hard to develop the vision thing.

Just make pile of prints of something that interests you or of something that you are at least curious about and start looking at them.

But, then what? Is the vision thing then just suppose to pop up fully formed in front of your face? Does a bell ring? A buzzer, buzz? Does a flashing neon arrow point to those of your pictures that have vision?

Ahh, in a word, no.

IMO, that's where the hard part begins, although, if you know what you're looking for, maybe it's not so difficult after all. Then again, it does require both intuition and thought, things that many shooters aren't too comfortable with. I mean, how many times have you heard the idea that "photography is a visual medium - no words needed", or, the ever popular, "if a pictures needs words, then it's a failure".

To which my response is always along the lines of "poppycock, balderdash, bunk, hogwash, rubbish" or words to that effect.

IMO, the premise is very simple - if you can't "explain" in words what you're doing with your camera, chances are very high that you're not doing something worth talking about.

But, I digress - back to developing the vision thing.

So, you've got a big pile of prints that you're looking at. What is it you're looking for? IMO, at this point, you have to select those pictures from the pile that seem to be "connected" in some fashion. At this point, you might not recognize exactly what the connection is (this where intuition - direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process - enters the picture) but unless you have been truly shooting at random, there are most likely pictures with a connection hiding in that pile.

Without putting too fine a point on it, what you're doing is editing. However, what you should be doing is editing by intuition and feeling. You're not looking at technique or for style or for pictures that look like pictures that you have been told are good pictures - you're looking for pictures that speak to you with a intuited common theme, language, or meaning.

Once you have that pile, it's time to start thinking about just what that meaning might be.

The most difficult aspect of this thinking process, the one that really trips up most shooters, is simply this - the more you know about the history of the medium specifically and the Art world generally, the more informed your thinking will be. The more you know about the grand / classic themes of Art and literature regarding what it means to be human, the more informed your thinking will be.

In short, the more you know, the more you can know but it seems, from my experience, that very few picture makers want to or are able to delve into this arena. They just want to make pretty pictures - something very much akin to photographic version of "girls just want to have fun".

If the vision thing truly springs from deep within the self (and I believe that it does), it is very much an act of emerging self-awareness. Consequently, it is vitally important that the conscious self be as fully aware of and dedicated to exploring the notion of what it means to be human.

IMO, the real "trick" to developing a unique vision is found in the act of connecting your intuition to your thinking so that you can, through the medium of photography, turn the unthought known into a conscious reality.

Once you consciously know what your specific version of the unthought known is the more you can understand your pictures and recognize (edit) those that fit with your unique vision thing. I still don't think that you can "force it" into your acts of picture making but at least you can know it when you see it.

Posted on Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 08:43AM by Registered Commentergravitas et nugalis in | Comments14 Comments

Reader Comments (14)

I find that photography has become, for me, a never ending loop of shooting, interpreting what I've shot and shooting again with that new knowledge of what I'm up to. When I began to ask questions about what I was doing and move outside of what I thought a pretty picture was supposed to be photography began to be many times more satisfying.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBill Gotz

In my mind at least, a picture needing words, and being able to describe in words what i am doing with my camera are two very different things.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterScott

Personal style, personal vision, I think there is an unhealthy obsession with these things, and it comes from the fact that photography today can be a big business.

Take the Art aspect out of it and think about making art, not for the critics, not for the billionaires, who'll be buying your images as soon as you have developed a style/vison, think about making art for yourself. After all, you're most likely the person who spends the most time with it. Do it because it is fun, and if it ain't, Goodness, stop doing it. There are cheaper and more rewarding hobbies.

I think it's a bad idea to spend much worrying on how to get famous, on how to get recognizable, on how to become an Artist. Just work and enjoy it. Art will emerge all by itself. It is human nature to concentrate, to focus on things that are near to the core of our Self. No need to force things. Style and vision will come. Monetary reward is most likely for your heirs anyway :)

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAndreas Manessinger

Sadly, I agree 100% that most picture makers just want to have fun. They probably have a wealth of experiences and things that could be said in their work, but never will.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Frazer

If anyone is curios about the photo, I insisted we stay at that hotel on our way to and from the NY State Fair this year. I had stayed in the motel on the grounds there in 1974 (age 10), and that place stuck with me as the most glamourous place I had ever stayed, especially because of the pool. My brother, who was only 6 when we stayed there, remember the pool as one of the only things about the whole week long trip.
When I found it on the internet, I had to stay there. If you are ever wandering north central new york and want a nice funky place to stay, try the Inn at the Beeches (www.thebeeches.com). There is a bar with candy cane vinyl striped banquettes in the stone building in the photo which is not to be belived!

PS, at the Erie canal village near by, you can ride a canal barge pulled by a mule team, which I found reasonably cool when I was 10, as well. I must admit the trip was one of the only times I left New Jersey before my 18th birthday where my destination was not the Philadelphia Zoo.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterthe wife

I don't think developing a personal vision is only tied to selling Art. I think it has to do with turning away from just copying others work and moving to exploring yourself and the world. I think this exploration is the most fun and satisfying form of picturing.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBill Gotz

I will have to disagree. I don't feel that you need to express in words what makes you take an image. Or why you need to be able to explain the meaning. I am going with the NIKE philosophy, "Just Do It". If that makes me shallow, so be it, but I will be one of the shallowest happy people around.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJim Jirka

My take is that a picture is worth a thousand more words, but some words are usually needed - if one wishes to connect with an outside audience.

If I'm getting this post right 9and in line with the way I've been thinking) one should be picturing the things one finds interesting, from that will naturally develop the vision thing.

But surely there can be some conscious action in there too: 'I wish to photograph a given subject - therefore I aim my camera at anything that falls into the category' approach.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Doonan

Words just don't come easy to some people Mark. You are lucky that your cup seems to runneth over most of the time. ;-) What is easy for you may be painfully difficult for someone else.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermary dennis

So the post was really interesting. Lots of stuff to digest. But it only really made sense when your wife explained the image at the top.

Her explanation of why the picture was taken makes it all suddenly come alive and be interesting. Something in that, I'm sure.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGordon McGregor

"Explanations Explained. You don't have to explain your pictures. In fact, it's generally a poor idea. If a pictures works, explanation is unnecessary. If it doesn't, no amount of explaining will save it. Most explanations explain nothing."

David Vestal, The Craft of Photography

December 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Allshouse

Looking at a photograph is never a purely visual experience. The cultural meanings are always there. Part of the initial ah-ha moment of looking at a great picture is a response to that meaning. Think of an Ansil Adams mountainscape. Beautifully composed and printed, of course, but don't forget that a big part of our response is based on our cultural meaning of the mountains and this kind of picture of them. This meaning comes to us from the Hudson River School of painters from the 19th century and other art of the romantic landscape. The idea that that response is purely visual is just false. You don't have to consciously think of that connection to get that meaning, but to think about where it comes from sure is interesting.

My question is if you met someone at a party and you wanted to tell them about your pictures and why you take them what would you say?

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBill Gotz

Opps. I meant for that response to be on tomorrows post.

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBill Gotz

Good and thought provoking piece. One statement, though, makes me a bit uncomfortable - at least when stated as a simple fact: "if you can't "explain" in words what you're doing with your camera, chances are very high that you're not doing something worth talking about."

Maybe. Maybe not.

I also have a significant background in music, where two views on this issue compete. One says that the full potential of musical expression is only possible when it is connected with non-musical things - essentially your "talking about" business. However, another view is that the best music can speak purely in its own language and, indeed, music that requires verbal or other explanation is revealing its failure to speak fully itself.

At least you included the words, "chances are..."

Dan

December 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterG Dan Mitchell

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