Embracing Ambiguity

Today I was listening to a radio show which chronicled some of the works of the great Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov. It was fascinating to say the least, to hear scholars, teachers, and interpreters speak of his life, how he fell in love, how he saw the world, and how he really experienced life.

And, I thought it’s always a good thing for photographers to explore other arts like literature, painting, cinema etc. You can only come away from these things a better person – perhaps more worldly, more creative, more passionate, and more grateful for the little things that complete our lives.

I’ve been photographing a different aesthetic lately as you might tell from my Instagram feed. Some would call it “new topographics”, others might prefer “contemporary landscape.” However I’ve been thinking about a certain lesson I learned in photography a long time ago, and how it applies to this style. That is, no one expects perfection in photographs. They simply want the photographer to describe to them the “significance” of the place in a way that is easily understandable. And, you do this in part by learning to embrace all the imperfections in life. Very often, the most beautiful images are the ones that pass along some kind of shared experience to the viewer. And even though in most circumstances you can never really believe anything you see in photographs these days, there is a genuineness in a good photograph that displays life’s flaws. There is I believe, always a way to find a composition based on a beauty and a truth. A good photograph should be poetic, metaphoric, and significant…but yet flawed.

Life is like that it seems, in that we can’t always predict what is going to happen to us. We can’t always control the events that shape our futures. And, in every thing I photograph I see that. The older I get, the more profound this fact becomes.

So my photography tip for this month is this: learn to embrace life’s ambiguities. Appreciate imperfection and loss of control. You will be a much better photographer and a seeker of truth.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

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On Imperfection

I read a post the other day from one of the world’s most successful wedding photographers where he mentioned that he had received a request from a couple to photograph their wedding, but they didn’t want any posed images. Not a single one!

That really got me thinking about the whole thing…

If someone’s house catches fire, they make sure everyone’s got out ok, and if there’s time, they usually grab the family photo albums. Ask yourself why those photos are so valuable…the vast majority of them are just terrible snapshots aren’t they?

An image doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable to someone. And they certainly don’t have to be posed or staged in any way. In fact, as it turns out, it’s quite the opposite.

The thing that gives most images personal meaning is that they represent true life moments. They are the way things really were with no false pretenses or staged setups. They are the silly reactions, the hysterical laughs, the tears, the bad hair days, and the breadcrumbs on the tablecloth. They are the “real” memories.

If you were to get professional photos done today where the photographer placed you and other family members in rather awkward poses or situations that were quite obviously staged, (remember how the husband looked in those maternity photos – yeah, you know the ones I’m talking about) how would you feel about those same images in thirty years? Would looking at them make you feel a little bit silly? Are you going to remember back to that exact day and relish how great you felt when you were posing like that? You might even think that these photos look a tad on the “cheesy” side.

Let me ask you this: If you’re someone who’s been married a long time, when was the last time you looked at those posed images from your wedding day? You know, the ones where everyone is all lined up in perfect little rows and all told to smile for the camera. The odds are far better that you’ve looked at the snapshots from your first family camping trip to the lake far more often. Why? Because they represent memories for you – memories of a time, memories of a feeling you enjoy re-living, a time, not just a day or a few awkward hours spent posing for some wanna-be fashion photographer.

I’m not saying posing isn’t important. It is. Fashion photography, the vast majority of wedding photography, and formal portraiture wouldn’t exist without it. And proper posing technique is vital in certain circumstances to make someone look their best. However far too often, photographers get hung up on posing and staging photos because they are trying to make someone look cool, or going for a certain look in their photo perhaps. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s also important to remember that it’s the “imperfection” that quite often gives us meaningful photographs. The bottom line is that the images must be believable. If they aren’t, they probably won’t stand the test of time in your heart. Just one more thing to put in your “consideration” bucket.

Happy Shooting,

Doug