It’s been quite a year! Two very different overseas photo adventures, a street photography workshop and, along the way, much inner reflection on the creative process and how I can side-step those recurring creative blocks and make better photographs.
Some answers are obvious. Practice, persistence, better technique and plain hard work are high on the list. So is a willingness to get out of my comfort zone, take a few risks, to try new things and, not least, to learn from other photographers. But it’s still too easy to keep making the same mistakes, rushing the shot, failing to see other possibilities in the scene, failing to take that sideways step that opens up new perspectives…
It can be harder to make compelling images in exotic locations where it’s too easy to let the subject do the heavy lifting. The excitement of being there can be a barrier to seeing possibilities and making stronger images, as I notice every time I review images from my latest trip.
For example, I compare my photograph from the elephant parade at the Amber Fort in Jaipur with workshop leader Matt Brandon’s atmospheric image and sigh a little. I tried different approaches, paying close attention to timing, composition and exposure. I got some reasonable shots, including one of two elephants walking towards each other, but none of my images had the impact I hoped for. So what’s the difference? I captured nice travel shots with a good sense of place, while Matt produced a timeless image that plays straight into our romantic fantasies of India. I particularly like the slight sense of distance, the empty howdah (no tourists to remind us this is a modern set-up) and Matt’s creative use of the backlight that had me fussing about my exposure. Vision and mood will trump the more obvious shot every time, especially with a touch of creative lateral thinking in the mix.
Iceland was another sort of challenge. Magnificent landscapes, cloudy skies and soft, flat light, raindrops on my lens, tripod discipline, manual exposures and slower, more thoughtful photography… The hardest part was learning not to panic when I had no idea how to begin photographing each stunning vista. Martin Bailey, the tour leader, suggested a simple way past that roadblock: first, work out which the part of the scene excites you the most, then use point of view, focal length, leading lines etc. to make that the star of the composition. Come to think of it, isn’t that what we should be doing every time we take out our cameras? Strong photographs usually have a definite subject.
Reviewing the year’s work, I have been thinking hard about what I learned and how to do better in future. Trial and error is a great way to learn, but when you are only there once you need to make the most of the opportunity. More focused preparation would help: researching the locations, thinking about likely opportunities and possible approaches, setting some goals (a book, an exhibition, a portfolio) and, above all, practice.
But it’s not really about the next trip or even the next project. It’s about being a photographer, no matter where I am, even when it’s hard to stay inspired here at home. It was so much easier when I lived in Paris! But I live in Canberra now, so I need to work harder and learn to see it differently.
That means tricking myself into finding ways past that “where to go? what to photograph?” road block. Personal projects and self assignments can help, whether it’s chasing the gorgeous afternoon light in winter, taking exploratory photo walks in unfamiliar suburbs, or working through a book like David DuChemin’s The Visual Toolbox or Chris Orwig’s Visual Poetry and doing the assignments in each chapter; I can’t think of a better way to improve my practice and sharpen my eye. And it’s surely time to re-read Freeman Patterson’s Photography and the Art of Seeing — not forgetting to do the suggested exercises in observing, seeing, imagining, abstracting, selecting, thinking sideways…
There is a whole world of inspiration to stimulate the imagination, starting with Faded [+] Blurred (www.fadedandblurred.com) and Photograph magazine (available from www.craftandvision.com, along with The Visual Toolbox and many more photography e-books). Another excellent book is Photography Q & A by Zack Arias; based on the author’s photography Q & A blog (http://zarias.tumblr.com/), it delivers a wonderful collection of “real questions, real answers”.
Photographers’ blogs are another source of inspiration. My current favourites include www.davidduchemin.com, www.thedigitaltrekker.com, www.gavingough.com, www.eyevoyage.com, www.martinbaileyphotogaphy.com, and www.joemcnally.com. I also enjoy reading about the personal projects many photographers use to push their boundaries, such as Louise Hawson’s 52 Suburbs and Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers.
Hawson photographed a Sydney suburb each week for a year and blogged about the experience (www.52suburbs.com.au), producing a delightful body of work and one of my favourite photography books (52 Suburbs). She went on to photograph another 52 suburbs around the world (www.52suburbs.com), using the same approach: no tourist hot spots or famous landmarks, lots of informal street portraits and quirky details, with plenty of local colour and flavour — altogether inspiring.
Renaldi took a novel approach to photographing strangers in cities across the USA: using a large format camera, he persuades likely subject to pose for him, not just with complete strangers, but touching them. The photographs are wonderful, as you can see here: http://fadedandblurred.com/blog/touching-strangers-richard-renaldi/; follow the links to Renaldi’s website and to Kickstarter, where there is a short video of the photographer at work in the street.
Finally, when it’s time to stop reading and thinking and just get out there and make photographs, a look at Zack Arias’s wonderful Signal and Noise video clip will surely put you in the mood. You can find it here: http://scottkelby.com/2013/its-guest-blog-wednesday-featuring-zack-arias-2/ Enjoy!
Andrée Lawrey | December 2013