Practicing my Scales

grove, photograph

“It seems to me that a photographer who takes [images without an underlying idea] is exactly like a pianist who repeatedly plays the scales.”

– Brooks Jensen, Letting Go of the Camera

I struggle constantly with this issue of taking photographs that are just visually interesting and taking those that are inspired by an idea. Especially since most of my work falls in the “fine art” category (as opposed to photojournalism or editorial). I feel like I should have an idea in play before I take the picture but, to be honest, I’m usually looking around for something that I know is or can be made visually compelling. Most of the time I don’t sit around coming up with a specific idea and then go out in search of images that express that idea.

I think a lot of it has to do with what one considers an idea. How broadly can it be defined? How important does the idea need to be? For example, I just completed a small project where I photographed rolls of paper in my studio – the idea was to capture their geometric qualities in an abstract fashion, to reduce them to curves, lines and shapes. I guess this is an idea, though not a very important one. But some of the images were pleasing to look at.

Jensen believes good photography is about ideas but does allow that the just-visually-interesting shot (what he calls tones and zones) has value – they’re necessary exercise akin to playing scales, just insufficient on their own.

I’ll take solace in this for now. As I go out and do my zones and tones work, I’ll remind myself that I’m just doing my scales (something I refused to do when learning to play the piano!).