It seems I have more than a couple people participating in my little contact sheet experiment. So far so good but surprisingly most of the questions or comments so far have been via email and of technical nature. I did receive a few conceptual kind of questions - the good kind from my POV at the moment. I'll try to summarize a few answers in this post. I also wanted to cover a couple thoughts on photographic projects in general, viewing/viewer context, presentation, and generally some thoughts on participating in any sort of activity resembling review or critique.
First off - yes another installment of the contact sheet experiment is coming. Probably this weekend or early next week. At first glance it will look extremely similar to the first one. Same subject, same location, same general treatment but the difference is fairly major and feel somewhat different from what I think will end up being a couple images that make it into the final project. Should be interesting just to see what I decided to change up for that set and even more so what I changed about half way through shooting it. We'll see…
That brings us to what amounts to a few questions regarding project concept that I received via email. I have mixed feelings about wrapping words around this project at this point - especially in the context of sharing the raw material. More of a personal hang up in I don't particularly like overly explained photographic projects that don't hold up without the words. It's my job to shoot it and edit down to images that speak to what I am trying to communicate visually - that's the point. Conversely I detest overly esoteric, obtuse, art speak that defies anyone from nailing down if any set of images actually gets near the intent of the maker - let's call it an out - a side stepping of declaring oneself and the artistic intent. In my mind there is a very narrow margin to navigate when it comes to putting words together with photographic projects. Like I said - personal hang up.
With that said let's see if I can navigate that narrow passage just a bit. I did say that the three personal projects I am working on are all very challenging to me. For the most part they are conceptually challenging - this one as well. The other's present some other obstacles and challenges beyond just conceptually challenging but this one will take quite a massive amount of raw material, very careful selection, and juxtaposition from that pile of raw material that I have only just started and will definitely evolve and change as I move forward. I have also heaped on the goal that not only is the project meant to be a series - an essay that has context together but the stand alone images need to work as well. Maybe not every one I select but most.
In as few as words as possible here's what the project I decided to share the evolution with all of you is about: The female relationship to the architecture, paraphernalia, process, clothing, etc of beauty and being female. It's something that has intrigued me for more than a decade. I have hundreds of outtake images that I shot on-the-fly at random in just about every context imaginable that intrigued and interested me at the time. Some shot on film some shot on digital, some shot on polaroid with no intent or mission or concept. Most of them would not fit together in this project due to so much other context included but I became aware of the concept as a project when just fooling around with my original Fuji X100 very early this year and looking at the similarity of random snaps I was making and how similar they were to the random collection of out-takes I made over years.
So what does that mean? Well if I could do a better job in words than I felt I could do visually with a photo project then I would write a book - I can't so a photo project it is… How about a picture instead. Actually two pictures. The one at the top and the next one that was almost exactly 20 seconds before the shot at the top. I grabbed both during the very easy going "getting ready" phase of this particular day. I happened to be evaluating exposure and ambient conditions while Anastasia vacillated between the hair/make-up/dressing and a quite passionate conversation with Carly who was in the getting out of bed phase of the day.
The image at the top is what this particular project is about in a nutshell. It lasted all of maybe a half of a second during the referenced discussion. Why did I make such a horrible image before that - well because I was just willy-nilly snapping a couple of exposure tests and there was only the scene with no attention paid to the subject. I didn't have intent or even a thought of composition or viewpoint or timing or anything else related to making a photograph. I was prepared to make the shot at the top though - a minor detour into my whole planning vs. preparedness diatribe. Will I end up using that particular image in the project - probably not, maybe. Certainly not with the default import treatment but it is in the giant pile of RAW material.
With this particular project I actually shoot all of the raw material in this context. Not exactly but similar. They are all made on the way to shooting something else or just with me hanging around for a longer period of time. It just doesn't seem to produce anything that works otherwise. It goes something like this… Hey what should we make? Okay what's the wardrobe? Styling? Etc. I shoot this project on the way to the end state concept which is collaborative - sometimes that end state is other personal projects, sometimes it's just things I want to try either technically or conceptually, or even just getting to know another piece of gear or location testing. Are subjects aware of this project - absolutely. If they are not on board it make no sense. The difference between this and the other thing? Subtle but let's just say it's all them and much less me - except for my portrayal, timing, framing, and editing decisions. The other stuff is far more me + them.
Last note - no it's not all about the mirrors even though I do shoot with it as a compositional element a lot for this project. That's actually more challenging than I thought it would be when shooting on the fly - setup hold still poses are a breeze. This? Not so much, it's very very much like shooting two different subjects where both have to work together well.
All of that - the project, the top picture, the horrible picture, shooting with mirrors, etc. brings me to the last set of notes for this Friday. You've heard "Nice - you must have a really good camera…" right? Hell a few different photographers I know say it to each other as a joke when anyone makes anything remotely decent. There are a lot of forms of this - I typically ignore them but wanted to just focus in on one tiny little area that struck me when messing about in an online sharing, evaluation, comment, critique-y forum kind of thing with a completely different set of images I made on this same day.
It goes something like this… "Wow - you have fantastic models" well duh… if you are shooting people, do you put people in front of your camera you have no interest in visually? If so then just stop it. That's not really what got me thinking though what got me thinking is context and mindset in any kind of discussion resembling critique or conceptual or technical kind of conversation between photographers.
There are certain things that as photographers and people we find interesting in terms of subject matter - other subject matter maybe not so much. Great - that's what makes life interesting. For me it's not landscapes - just not into that as photographic fodder. I am aware to some degree of the challenges that really great photographs that happen to be of landscapes can potentially pose - I am definitely not an expert but I do know if we eliminate all of the photographic commonalities between various types of subjects the challenges are completely different - absolutely positively. Anyone that has even moderate experience in life knows there's a bit more to just about any endeavor than meets the eye. To become relatively competent at just about anything takes some degree of effort - to go beyond relatively competent can take staggering amounts of effort depending on how far you push it. Every couple of percent produces ever diminishing returns - you see less progress for the same amount of investment. As an added reward sometimes you actually have to re-invent what you were doing which pushes you backwards - very fun stuff.
So what's my point about photographic discussion between photographers? Well I have had the opportunity to be intimately involved over the last 5 or 6 years with an incredibly diverse set of photographers who's preferred subject matter spans just about the whole gamut - some of it floats my boat and some not so much. Here's what I've learned when entering into any type of critique/opinion/discussion of merit or success or lack of success and how valuable that discussion is to both myself and other participants.
- You have to have context. Are you assuming intent or do you have actual knowledge. It's hard to discuss anything with no context at all besides the quite banal you like it or you do not. I guess if that's all the discussion is about - fine.
- It's really hard - especially if you do not gravitate to a particular subject to discuss it's merit or lack of merit or what elements are lacking or fantastic. In fact it's extremely difficult to even offer praise or critique. Generally you need some sort of clue as to what particular elements of a photograph or group of photographs the photographer would like to discuss beyond like/dislike/neutrality - that's a two way street. If you don't know but would actually like to participate in discussion then ask. Especially if a particular subject matter is outside of the realm of your own photographic experience and your photographic interests.
- If you happen not to be well versed in making images of a particular type of subject but you happen to like an image that has been offered up for discussion by all means ask the photographer his point of view of what the elements that he/she think went into that photograph. I do it all the time. For me that's extremely interesting and educational. Assumptions about what those were are not super valuable and lead to things like "you must have a great camera" or "you have great models" etc. Obviously this is especially important if you are actually interested in the particular subject matter as a photographic endeavor of your own.
I'll wrap up this insanely long blog post with this - subjects and my choice of them. I find female subjects interesting, infinitely variable, and beautiful. I tend to relate to female subjects well. I do not put any in front of my camera that I don't believe I will be able to make the images I want to make. With the exceptions of exposure tests where I am paying no attention I try my hardest not to make horrible pictures - I used to make a lot of horrible pictures way way back. Now - yeah every once in a while I will make a terrible picture. All my fault - my responsibility 100% at least from my perspective. I even have bad days where I make sub-optimal pictures all day - not horrible but not great. It's me - it's not my subject.
I guess it's that mindset that keeps me so interested in making photographs of people. It's also the real meat behind my obsession with getting it right in camera. Not the exposure part or any of that - that's the beginning. It's all the rest of it that is way more important - the framing, the timing, the gesture, the point of view, the perspective, the composition, that's all me - or all you and so so so important. If all of that's not right for what you want to portray the image is a completele failure. My mindset isn't how do I fix any of those things after the fact - it's why did you bother taking that picture in the first place. I've said it before but I will continue to repeat it - same subject, same location, same day, same time - two photographers = two completely different images. Amazing. Magical. This is something I will probably explore until I am unable to make pictures any more.
Want proof - just check out the two images I included 20 seconds apart in the same exact spot. Yep I have fantastic subjects I point my camera at but probably for far far far far different reasons in my mind than what you might assume.