I´ve always had a love / hate relationship with photography. The excitement of capturing a special moment, only to be disillusioned by the dull copy that my fat fingers and colour blind eyes had produced. I think the prime mover for my journey was Ansel Adams. I dont recall how or why I first saw his images, only that they struck me as wonderful. I grew up with the outdoors, on the brooding Pennine moors near Wuthering Heights, where the light was always dramatic. Adam´s imagery seemed to capture the grandeur and serenity and vastness and beauty and character of the vistas before him, that I felt as I walked the dogs for hours across those moors and among those dark satanic mills. I still have two large prints hung on my wall (Moon and Half Dome; Sand Dunes at Sunrise).
I´m sure my mum bought my first camera; some cheap “point and shoot” Minolata 110 cassette camera for taking snapshots on school trips. As I got my first job, I bought my first “real” camera, a Minolta X300; I enjoyed the first forays into trying to capture and preserve a moment, a feeling: messing with the dials and buttons, the induction into a new esoteric language. Photography seemed an ideal mix of boy-toy, technology and art.
There was something ritualistic about going to the chemists and analysing that weeks 6´x4´s. Of course, most were complete rubbish and those that blind luck had seen fit to endow with a correct exposure were uninspiring and dull. I blamed the equipment, naturally, so after a while I saved up and traded the body in for a Minolta X700. I suppose my technical awareness had improved a little, and shots got better, but still I continually felt dissatisfied with my results (somebody once asked me to photo their wedding…they were very brave!). Alas, learning how to take pictures with a film camera was expensive, slow, and extremely frustrating. I abandoned my aspirations and fell back on inadequate snap shots, and a draw full of easily forgotten, badly exposed, poorly printed, dull images. Nothing could be less inspiring or motivating than taking a roll of film, waiting till I had the money to take them to the chemists for printing, and then getting the disappointing results back. After a time, it became just too depressing. I didn’t pick a camera up for years after that. Resigned to the fact that I would never do my imagination justice. The advent of digital changed all that.
There was an immediacy to digital. The results were there on the little LCD screen, telling you straight away that you’d chopped someones head off, or that their eyes were closed. I once shot three rolls of film at a game of American Football and actually managed to miss the ball in every single shot. Of course, digital doesn’t make you better at handling a camera, but at least you know your doing something wrong, and you’re spared the ignominy of turning up at your mates house, envelope in hand, and not having a single decent photo in them. Digital allowed you to do what most of us want to do, get immediate feedback, reshoot if the result is rubbish, and probably most importantly… share the moment.
I bought a small digital compact (a Sony CyberShot DSC T10) and reaquainted myself with the vocabulary of photography. This time around photography felt much more accessible. You could take hundreds of “practice” shots, play with settings, and throw away the embarrassingly bad ones. Small compacts meant you could take shots anywhere anytime, and Moores Law had pushed the embryonic “auto” settings of the “old” cameras to new levels of automated image quality. It was now hard to take a bad picture. Taking a picture was now effortless. So why was it still unsatisfying?
I still felt the draw of wanting to take not just decent photos, which the camera created, but producing great images, which I had created. Digital had exposed the truth, I was really just rubbish at taking pictures. I could take as many shots as I wanted, at no cost. I could reshoot when things had gone wrong, and I could now have a digital darkroom to post process my images, I could no longer blame shoddy printing by “Brian” the 17yr old spotty kid that worked behind the counter at Boots. The problem was me.
So why are my images still unsatisfying? Because, although I always knew it, digital had writ it large on my computer screen; image taking is not just about technical competency, which digital has largely automated, its about capturing a moment and sharing an emotion; inducing through imagery…empathy. And I dont know how to do that.
Ansel Adams said “you don’t take a photograph; you make it”. And there in lies the crux of the matter. As taking a “decent” photo has become effortless, its even more obvious that producing a great image requires effort. It requires practice with your equipment so that its a tool in the hand of an artisan, not a DIYér. It requires a knowledge of what actually “makes” a great image, it requires training your mind to see what your eyes are missing. To convey the moment, you need to understand whats special about the moment, to capture a special place, you need to know what makes that place special.
So if I am to ever get any better at capturing the grandeur, the serenity, the vastness, the beauty, or the character of the wondrous spectacles I see before me, I need to put some effort in.
“I hope that my work will encourage self expression in others and stimulate the search for beauty and creative excitement in the great world around us.”—Ansel Adams