catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 20 :: 2005.11.04 — 2005.11.17


Experiments in photography

View Steve’s photographs
I sometimes wonder if coloring books and primary-colored crayons do a disservice to children. In my mind, the grass was green, the sky was blue, the sun was yellow. Even in my high-school art class, most of my work was marked by line drawings or starkly unmixed paints. I vividly remember standing around at an art gallery during college when someone behind me remarked how many colors an artist had used in painting a rumpled white sheet. It was one of those lightning bolt moments that changed my habits of perception, that opened my eyes to how much detail there is in the ordinary.

There’s a big difference between appreciating art and setting your mind to create it. To be on the receiving end of art is to take yourself out of the ordinary world you inhabit and enter into a stylized work of the artist. More often than not the art concerns itself with extraordinary events, polished dialogue, beautiful observations, elevated emotions. To view art is to step out of reality. But to create art is to connect yourself more deeply to reality. It requires paying attention to how a change in light affects the mood of a scene. It requires listening to how people talk, to be ready to write down on note cards any priceless lines that you overhear. It requires knowledge about how people act and think. It’s about taking the ordinary moment and elevating it to the status of art by revealing the moment in all its complex glory.

I have learned this lesson best through my experiments with photography. I had a point-and-shoot camera growing up, which isn’t particularly conducive to learning to be observant. Most of my photographs from my childhood are from all the important events in life—birthdays, vacations, Christmas, school events—because those are the moments that justified the expense of developing film. Most of the shots are taken from far away because it was tricky to determine if the subject would end up in the frame. I wouldn’t even try a close-up with my limited lens. Every shot was lit evenly and dully with flash because I didn’t want to risk an underexposed picture. People were always smiling and cheery because that’s how you pose in front of a camera. There was little of real life in my scrapbook. I was capturing moments but I wasn’t learning to observe them.

Digital cameras have really changed the photographic world for us amateurs, starting with the simple fact that I can take a hundred pictures without wasting money. When I notice a stump or skyline or swing set that interests me, often my first shot records how I initially saw the object. In the case of an animal, that might be the only shot I get. But then I’ll try to move beyond: What else do I see nearby? Might it be interesting to juxtapose them? How might this shot look from ground level? What if I moved so the light silhouetted it? Is there an interesting texture that I could fill the frame with? Often only one photo in a series works well; sometimes none of them do. Sometimes I capture an expression or a moment I could never have planned. But without the ability to shoot a “roll” on a pair of geese for virtually no cost, I wouldn’t bother to explore.

The rules for great photography are the same, I believe, as the rules for living a life attentive to God’s love of the ordinary. For instance, the wisdom of taking a lot of photos is simply an invitation to be open to the unexpected. It tells us not to limit ourselves to what we first see or what we had in mind when we started. It says to take time to seek out beauty. Furthermore, just as the “wasted” pictures are not really wasted at all but in service of the perfect shot, we might find it takes a dozen conversations with someone at church before we first click with them, or hundreds of times walking the dog before we begin to see it as something more than a chore. It’s not a waste of a time to stare at the back of your hand and take in how you’re growing old. The first rule of photography is: Keep looking.

Digital cameras are also helpful with rules two and three (these rules are not exclusive to, but were first introduced to me by, the books of photographer Nick Kelsh): turn off your flash, and move closer. On any point-and-shoot camera, the flash is so close to the lens that you’re essentially lighting the scene with a direct spotlight, never the most flattering choice. It’s extremely unnatural. But with digital, I can shoot in natural light and the camera nearly always adjusts to the right exposure. I can play with soft shadows, which give a depth to the photo and emphasize texture. The lesson here is to simply let things be. There is no need to whitewash reality with an even glaze of perfection; the world around us is interesting enough without our dressing it up.

Moving closer is much easier now that I have a decent zoom lens on my digital point-and-shoot; I can remain at a comfortable distance and still capture a close-up. Moving closer is about capturing detail and eliminating clutter—it’s learning to fill the frame with your subject matter. The digital viewscreen makes this simple as you can see at a glance exactly what your frame contains. This makes it easier to experiment, easier to take the time with a person or object and explore how best to reveal it. Discovering the subject of your scene and filling the frame with it is really the heart of what photography is about—not only finding meaning among the chaos but directing others’ attention to it. It gives a voice to the ordinary and brings others into the mystery.

There are two final rules I would add from my own experience with photography: Shoot with someone you love. I probably would have given up the camera a long time ago if my wife hadn’t been just as eager to learn as I was. We’ve learned a lot from each other, doubling the speed of our trial-and-error process as we pour over our results and choose what works best. Living a life of deep observation requires support, validation, and sharing with like-minded friends.

And finally: Bring your camera with you always. I will never forget one winter morning when it had snowed briefly here in Seattle and I spent an hour before church photographing the neighborhood in its blanket of white. By the time church was over it had all melted. It was only because I had my camera that I took the time to wander the streets in observation. Sometimes when I want to sharpen my awareness I will take out my camera, but more often it’s my camera burning to get out of my pocket that moves me toward being fully present. Photography is not only a metaphor for presence but is a quite practical way to enter into it. It’s a tangible tool for discovery.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus