Quite a few years ago I took a solo trip down to Key West, FL. It was the first time I had gone on a vacation by myself, and since I was free of the distraction of friends and family, I decided it would make a great opportunity to expand upon my photography skills.
You see, the trip was shortly after I had decided to take this whole photography hobby of mine seriously. I had worked with video for years but now I wanted to work on becoming a good photographer as well, not just one that took as many photos as possible and then looked for the three good ones out of the hundreds shot (seriously, it’s a horrible method and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody).
The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, literally “change good,” is at the heart of many a successful company. It represents a dedication to constant change for the better, and is famously used by Toyota on their assembly lines, where employees are encouraged to point out issues and suggest improvements.
But car companies aren’t the only ones that employ the idea of Kaizen; the philosophy may also be at the heart of Fujifilm’s habit of constantly improving its cameras with firmware updates.
I did a trip to Paris solely to take photographs for myself back in 1992. That sounds selfish, but I didn’t have any children to take care of and my wife was enmeshed in a busy career as an art director for a prosperous advertising agency.
I was approached by Agfa that year to be a tester for their line of APX films and I requested a case of their 100 speed film and another of their 400 speed film. They asked me where I wanted to photograph and I said, “Paris.” A month later, in late October, I was there with a camera bag full of new Canon EOS lenses and a couple of camera bodies. Oh, and a big shopping bag full of black and white film.
As I sat trapped in a coach seat on an aged and tattered American Airlines airplane I had time to think about the whole spectrum of art photography. I wanted to have a clearer window into the different ways in which people who aren’t using their cameras to make a living in a traditional, commercial application of photography approach their subjects and their understanding of style. How much is generated internally and how much is a reflexive reaction to a world inundated in images?
I spoke with a person in the film industry on Friday. We were talking about HMI lighting and he made a remark concerning still photographers. I give him credence since his background originally included a successful career in photography. His remark, in regards to the real lack of lighting acumen among most shooters was this: “There’s no such thing as a good photographer under 40.”
We are in the midst of sea change — a tidal wave might be more accurate — within the medium of photography. While the lens is still firmly fixed to the camera body, the body itself appears to have imploded. The inner workings — that is, the guts of the camera from Talbot’s days (when cameras were called “mousetraps” by his wife who was always tripping over them) — have changed faster than anyone expected.
A camera can be many things. A tool, to produce an image. A bridge, to start a conversation. An observer, to record an event, or bear witness to something. A shield, to distance and separate the photographer from the scene he or she is attempting to capture.
There’s a big difference between being part of the action, and just being a witness to the action. Which do you think makes for stronger images? Unquestionably, the former. However, it’s not that simple: photojournalism is like quantum mechanics.
Last month photographer Chris Crisman entered the photograph above, titled Butterfly Girl, into the World Photography Organization’s 2012 World Photography Awards. It was selected from the thousands of entries as part of a promotional campaign for the contest and in that process was spread out all over the Internet. From the Daily Mail to the Huffington Post, the story about the World Photo Awards and Chris’s photo made the rounds across the web.
In particular, on the UK news site The Daily Mail, the photo generated a ton of comments and sparked some controversy as to whether or not it was appropriate for a photography competition. This caused me to ask myself the question: “What defines a photograph?”
Sean O’Hagan over at The Observer has published an interesting profile of famed NYC street photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who had some pretty harsh things to say about his fellow NYC street shooter, Bruce Gilden:
I ask Meyerowitz about the combative, confrontational style of street photography espoused by the likes of fellow New Yorker Bruce Gilden, and he grows visibly angry for the only time in our conversation. “He’s a f**king bully. I despise the work, I despise the attitude, he’s an aggressive bully and all the pictures look alike because he only has one idea – ‘I’m gonna embarrass you, I’m going to humiliate you.’ I’m sorry, but no.”
Meyerowitz says that his street photography style is based on his boxer father’s advice to “pay attention” and anticipate the actions of the people he photographed. So here’s the difference between these two famous street photographers: one anticipates, and the other instigates.
Joel Meyerowitz: ‘brilliant mistakes … amazing accidents’ [The Observer]
P.S. Last month we wrote on how Gilden’s street photography attitude carries over into his teaching persona as well.
Thanks for sending in the tip, Phil!
Image credit: Joel Meyerowitz portrait 11/03/2012 reception by Jill Gewirtz
Sometimes the best thing you can do to improve your photography is leave your camera at home.
Yes, practice is imperative if you want to improve. You do need to learn to work your camera instinctively and make a mastery of the technical aspects needed to create beautiful images.