Monthly Archives: March 2012

I am not a Zen Master

Many years ago, awestruck or perhaps even infatuated by water colors and crayons, I tried my hand at painting. My biggest fans were my parents who proudly displayed my works of art to each guest who came home. Sadly, our visitors were not connoisseurs of the fine things in life and couldn’t appreciate my stick figures and awry brush strokes painting sunrises (or sunsets) across fields and that ubiquitous pond. But soon I was jaded and trashed my dreams of being the next Picasso. Even at that age I was miserable, because I never could figure out no matter how much time I put into it, why my paintings always had “that” amateurish look!

Had I known what vision and composition was all about, I could have saved myself much frustration and maybe exhibited my works at Peggy Guggenheim. Sure, I loved painting, I could draw, get my proportions right, mix the right colors and shades etc., but the paintings never really worked because my subjects were not in the right place. I could never discover that ‘hidden secret’ that the masters knew. Much after I’d discarded my paint brushes and colors, I heard about vision and composition. By then, my amateurish attempts at painting had been replaced by equally amateurish attempts at photography. The saving grace was – it wasn’t too late. After I’d discovered and began learning (which I still am) this elusive secret, the visual language, it started becoming apparent which artists knew their craft and which hopeful ones would be like I was with painting – lost in translation.

Of all the photographers-writers, Michael Freeman, Chris Orwig, Susan Sontag & co., whom I have read, one stands out as brilliantly eloquent in his writing,– David duChemin. His books “Within the Frame” and “Photographically Speaking” are works of art in themselves, and David’s passion shines through. After reading these authors, I started asking myself “What is it that I want to say with this photograph? How can I say it best? Will it be understood?” The answer to the first question is a function of my vision and intent, to the second my expression, and to the last, interpretation.

For me, a “successful photograph” is a metaphor for a feeling that the artist is trying to express to the viewer. It is not about the subject or object, place, or event of the photograph, but rather about the feeling generated within the artist as part of making that image. And my opinion is that the success of the photograph should be evaluated only and only by the creating artist in whether his or her sense of feeling has been conveyed to the viewer through the image. This feeling is an indelible part of the photographer’s vision and intent which addresses what you decide to include in your frame and why. What you choose to keep within should mean something to you, or else be left out. As David puts it: “Intent matters. It is the prime mover. Without it, we are engaging in little more than accidentally exposing light to film or a sensor.”

Now as important a question our intent for a photograph is, it remains confined within us, unrealized, until it is within the frame. Our way of getting our inner feelings out is the photograph. Not the camera; the photograph. The camera is just the tool. The photograph is the very expression of our inner feeling experiencing freedom. How we make that photograph, with the tools at our disposal, and how close it comes to expressing what we hope, determines how successful that image is. To do that well, we turn to the language spoken by the photograph which is the subject, the subject matter and the composition, each of which give meaning to our photograph which is the story we want to tell. After that, interpretation is up to the ‘reader’. It is awareness and use of this visual language that allows us to move on from merely having vision to being able to express it. The better we know the language, its grammar, punctuation, syntax, the better our expression. Greater awareness of the language leads to an expanded and refined ability to use that language to express ourselves.

As an example, I made this photograph of an old man in Jaipur after watching him for about 15 minutes. He was sitting in the winter sun against this fascinating blue wall, with his “lathi” (bamboo staff) cradled in his lap and a withered “tulsi” (basil) plant up in front, while just behind him was a bright green potted plant. What I felt was a sense of time, of how we walk, oftentimes with support (the “lathi”) from one part of life to the other, from being an all green plant to a withered one. Was I able to express what I felt? I hope so.

We need to slow down – a mindful approach to our photographic process – being conscious of what we want to say and how we want to say it – will allow us to create images that are more able to express our unique inner voice that seems to prefer the camera as a means to getting those words out and onto paper. In our case the words are the elements around us, the paper is the photographic print. We’re left with arranging those elements within the frame – our visual language. Like a writer uses words and grammar to tell a story, photographers use the elements available in a scene and make decisions to create a story in a frame. Photographic elements such as lines, shapes, forms, textures, patterns, repetitions, color and light, when combined with the choice of optics and settings available, can be then arranged to express our vision. A grasp of what’s going on within the frame, and a mindful approach to creating photographs that speak this language, is enough to create powerful photographs that express something deep within us that stirs as we feel, not see. As David says, “Vision isn’t the goal. Expression is the goal”.

The better I am able to express, the better I’ll be interpreted and understood. I want to be understood, which is why I learn the visual language. So I don’t express in koans. I am not a Zen Master.

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What you feel, not what you see

I’ve often wondered what truly is a “memorable image”. Is it merely adherence to the rules? Understanding the Golden Mean? Getting the horizon straight? Capturing a child’s innocence? That glorious sunset? Sure it is most of this, and yet more. Now this may seem familiar: you’re with a great subject, you photograph it, but when you look at the picture later on, it has nowhere near the impact the actual scene had.

That’s because many things have happened between “composition and click”. Our brain tends to focus on only the parts we want to see. Selective retention, psychologists call this. It sees that evocative portrait imagining it in high-key B&W, yet disregards the clutter at the top of the frame and the rubbish piled up at the bottom. Having been there, done that, I am now more conscious of not only what I see around me, but also what I see through the lens. I slow down when I photograph. Later I put aside time to see my own pictures critically, without the benefit of post-processing. I see a brilliant photograph, but for the fact that I got my subject’s left hand only till the wrist and missed the fingers. This helps me the next time.

Another reason for the less-than-ideal transition from “reality to roll” is that mak­ing a photograph (I prefer the term “make a photograph” to “take a photograph” because it better reflects the creative process of photography) means going from three dimensions (width, height, and depth) to two, eliminating depth. There are a number of techniques to improve “spatial” dynamism in pictures, i.e. better manage the loss of depth. These include working with leading lines, incorporating di­agonals in images, framing with the rule of thirds in mind, using shallow depth of field to isolate foreground from background, wide-angle lenses, etc. Therefore, a big part of creating compelling photographs is trying to translate or even exaggerate that feeling of depth into my final, two-dimensional image.

There’s yet one more reason, and another important dynamic in photog­raphy: when I’m making a photograph, I’m actually not only cut­ting out the third dimension of depth, but also the fourth: a photograph is not only a spatial crop (a frame from a bigger scene), but also crop in time. The best way to translate a feeling of time (or timelessness), and there­fore dynamism, into a picture is to work with the shutter speed.

But this is not about the technicalities of making an image. To answer the question that I started from, I need to figure out why is it that of the thousands of pictures I’ve seen and studied, a few instantly come to mind, and why is it that those photographs of mine that I find best, people don’t quite appreciate, or perhaps understand. A simple answer is association. We are all comfortable in our zones, and so for example a “great” photograph with a deliberate blur might not catch the fancy of many. But in itself the feeling of time induced by that blur tells a story. The complex answer lies within me. The problem is in my vision, intent, expression and finally interpretation. More on this in my next post.

What I do need to do is capture that moment within the frame, and to create an image that stands alone and tells a whole story in a single frame, is challenging. It requires a different approach than a photo essay or telling a story over several images. Capturing a moment requires the viewer to have instant recognition and, perhaps also, instant surprise. A momentary image tells a universal story. I made this photograph of a child of maybe 5 or 6 years in mid-step as he was walking towards me carrying his load of plastic and glass bottles, and empty cans, quite obviously from a garbage dump. Even from about 30 feet or so, his eyes told a story…but in that 1/200th of a second, I couldn’t know the story; maybe even in a lifetime, I’ll never know it. All I knew instinctively was there was a story, maybe of unfulfilled desires and broken dreams, but surely of hardship and pain.

And this rickshaw-wallah at Amritsar, just outside the Jallianwala Bagh. I watched this man for a few minutes, and then went up to him to see if he’d agree for me to make a few images with him. He smiled this most beautiful smile and said “yes”. I often wonder when I make photographs of people, why is it that I’m fascinated with people who have so little (as we know it), yet smile from their hearts? Every time this happens, it gives me great belief in the resilience of the indomitable human spirit, the inner strength we all possess but fail to recognize. It gives me hope. It gives me faith. Maybe that is why I see these images over, and yet over again.

These are stories in a universal language, no translation needed.

For these moments to be recognized (as opposed to predicted), I need to be aware, I need to feel. Photographers, as in any other creative, literary or artistic pursuit have a signature style. I am figuring mine out, and as I evolve I have slowly started using the litmus test of “capturing my emotion”, vs. “capturing my sight”. From simply saying “I was here”, I now want my photographs to say “I felt this”. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye”.

So photograph what you feel, not what you see.

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I photograph, therefore I am

I’ve been a photographer for many years now – or let me rephrase that, I’d been a camera owner for a while before I could be called a photographer. A subtle, yet significant difference. As I reflect, from the first moment I used a camera, I had been on an image making journey – across different stages, different directions, but not really any final destination. Just the other day, I was reading an interesting article by the adventure photographer, Alexandre Buisse*. And I can’t help but identify with it; these are my ramblings…

As I started my photographic journey with a Nikon N6006, I had no real artistic intent; I only wanted to record memories – the usual suspects of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays etc. Of course, I also wanted to be seen with a state-of-the-art (at that time) Nikon and a fancy lens. Those images were not expected to be beautiful in any way, but simply to show what was happening at a particular moment. I was a mere camera operator, and only expected to keep my pictures sharp and well exposed. This too was a challenge, considering digital photography wasn’t on the stage yet.

Then as some (or at times few, far and between, most) of the photographs came out well, I discovered my interest in creating beautiful images and started twiddling around with my camera, but without any real direction or techni­cal knowledge. I usually followed the automatic (for Nikon, Program) mode of my camera but experimented randomly, delighted to discover the occasional good image, but still unsure of why it was good or how it was achieved. My portfolio now included the “cliché” images, of sunsets, mountains and flowers. This was a time of great creativity but with a relatively poor yield of good imagery. I pondered on the magic pill recipe to automatically make my photos great.

As I went along to the next stage, I real­ized that inadequate technical knowledge hindered my efforts and I made a deliberate decision to learn the craft and art of photography. I started focusing on technique and technology, started buying equipment (not too much though), perusing photography websites and read a lot on photography. My images improved dramatically, even to my untrained eye, at least from a technical standpoint, but they did not necessarily satiate me any more than before. My photographs were predictable and confined – rule of thirds, diagonals, and a frame within a frame determined most compositions. This was a strange and confusing time, as the unleashed zest and zeal of the previous stage, where everything was new and exciting, made room for the cold world of rules. Unbridled awe was replaced by the walls of imposition.

In a few years, I had an epiphany: focusing exclusively on technique was a complete cul-de-sac – a dead-end; composition, light and other such, not so tangible elements were equally (if not more so) critical in the success of an image. This was much more difficult to learn, since it was not nearly as quantifi­able as the technical aspects of photography. I also realized that the transitions from one stage to the next are intriguing. They can’t be forecast or forced, and it is only in retrospect that I realized I’d progressed to the next level and had stopped worrying about whether my camera’s 12 megapixel resolution was good enough, for instance. I became passionate, at times possessive of my work. I also started creating something deeply personal, which not only had memories, but also emotions. I listened to others, yet sought my own voice. I didn’t feel the need to mass-produce lowest-common-denominator images, which may please crowds but didn’t truly express my voice. But I also believed that if I live in an ivory tower and never consider any critique, convinced of my own genius, I would stop growing as an artist and repeat myself endlessly.

I am here now. Reflective. Meditative. Contemplative.

So what lies ahead? Somewhere along the line (hopefully), I will acquire the technical and artistic tools I need and then contemplate about what to do with them. I might be able to create a beautiful photograph, but realize I need more – I need to express. I need my vision, my voice, my language. I was a craftsman, I need to become an artist.

Finally I guess, I might find my voice. I will have a mes­sage to express, and know the language of expression. I also realize I might never fully reach this stage, the elusive destination called mastery. In fact, I don’t believe such a destination exists.

Of course I have had goals, both tangible and more abstract. But as soon as I reached one of those goals, I realized that they were not the real reason I make photographs. What really mattered to me was the journey itself, the evolution. I am a photographer because I love to photograph.

To rephrase Descartes, I photograph, therefore I am.

(* Alexandre Buisse is an adventure photographer and a mountain climber, raised in the French Alps and now travels to the world’s major ranges from his base in Scandinavia. Alexandre’s work can be seen at http://www.alexandrebuisse.org.)

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