Does Your Art Say What You See?

apple heart, photograph

“To learn how I see, is something that cannot be taught, but must be learned. It is too easy to be the photographer that is expected rather than the artist within.”

– Brooks Jensen

[This is the same apple from my last post, just a few days later. In these cold winter days, the birds have made good use of the last few apples hanging on the bare trees. I was struck by the heart-shape created in the fruit.]

I’m reading one of my Christmas presents, Letting Go of the Camera: Essays on Photography and the Creative Life by Brooks Jensen, a favorite writer of mine on the subject of photography. The point he is making in this quote from one of his essays is one I ponder often.

We have all been taught in various ways what to shoot and how to shoot it. The work of other photographers implicitly describes this to us and we intentionally or subconsciously do as they do. We take workshops and read books where we’re taught how to be a photographer. People have expectations of us when they hear we are a “photographer”. They picture scenic landscapes, beautiful flowers or perhaps portraits of kids. They (and we) often provide neat boxes within which the work should fit.

The best other photographers can do through their work is to show us how they see. And I love this about art, it’s ability to tell us something intimate about someone else. Not all photographers reveal this through their work, but the best ones do.

Yet somehow, through the process of making our own work, taking our own photographs, we must learn how we see. And this doesn’t mean figuring out how to take the pictures that fit within the neat boxes others associate with “photography”. It means understanding more about ourselves, a process that is fueled as much by life’s experiences as it is by experiences in a workshop.

As we develop this understanding and learn to convey it in our work, we can hope to be one of those artists who, through their work, shares their own personal vision with others.

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Now You See It, Now You Don’t

dripping with color, photograph

“A great photograph is a distillation, a reduction of the chaos of our wider experience to a visually satisfying essence where what is excluded is as important as what is included.”

David Ward

A characteristic of photography that makes it such a unique art form is that it starts by confronting what is essentially complete and continues by carefully choosing what to eliminate. The scene in front of you, whether a landscape, portrait or abstract, has all of the basic elements needed for your creation already there. What you need to do to get started is to decide what not to include in the final work.

The closest thing to this I can think of in other art forms is in sculpture, which often proceeds through a process of elimination. The stone is gradually chipped away, and what is left is the finished  art. But what is removed is nothing more than unrealized potential – simple stone. In photography what we eliminate is realized potential – it is real stuff that might be interesting to leave in. This makes it harder to get rid of because its presence often tempts us by its color, its interesting shape or some other unusual quality it possesses. We have to overcome the tendency to leave well enough alone.

It’s best to be ruthless when considering what shall remain. What is the picture about? Why are you taking it? What compelled you to stop and consider whether there was something worthwhile there? Anything that isn’t part of the answer must go.

And since these things are there to start with, it is a conscious decision to remove them rather than the quite different decision to simply not create them to begin with, as in painting, writing, music, etc. I don’t think one type of decision is any easier or harder than the other. I suspect that some people are more comfortable with one or the other and that may be what draws them to their artistic path.

I just bought my son his first camera and he asked me for advice about taking pictures. My first suggestion was “get closer and then get closer still”….

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