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.
“The Beginner’s Mind can be elusive to a seasoned photographer. As we learn more and more about photography we often unlearn imperfection at the same time.“
Imperfection is important in photography because that is what gives our photographs soul. For many of us who spend time working on projects, it’s quite common that we start out looking for and hunting down those wonderful compositions. We want to find colourful sunrises, beautiful smiles, perfect family moments, and beautiful people for our images. Then one day we reach a point when we examine the images we have done and come to conclusion that something seems to be missing. Months or years go by and we are consumed by trying to find more meaning in our images. That elusive something is indeed getting the best of us.
We’re not all fashion photographers and we don’t all work for Vogue magazine. We’re simply trying to capture images that don’t look like a thousand other photos that you’ve seen before, and contain an element of truth to them, and perhaps even a tiny shred of what it means to be human.
Many photographers spend a great deal of time trying to make people look like something they are not. Let’s place this family in a beautiful setting. We will carefully arrange them to give the photo an overall balance. We stagger their heads so that the eyes are not all at the same level. We dress them in clothes that they will only ever wear when getting a professional photo done. And then we ask them to produce a smile on the count of three. We can even finish the photo off by supercharging the saturation of the colours, adding light where none existed and then add some falling leaves.
I don’t say this trying to be mean because all photographers including myself have been guilty of this. In many respects this is what we have been taught as photographers to produce, and it most likely is what sells.
The family sees their group photo for the first time and think, “Oh my goodness that’s beautiful! You’ve captured the colours so well. And I didn’t realize the sunlight was so gorgeous!”
The truth is that they didn’t realize the sunlight was so gorgeous because it probably wasn’t at the time. And in many cases the client attributes the effect to the skill of the photographer and the expensive camera they were using. It’s almost like magic.
The family will love the image and proudly display it on the wall of their foyer as a 36 inch canvas. Meanwhile, the snapshot of the kids laughing and jumping on the couch while mom and dad pick up the bowl of popcorn that spilled all over the floor gets filed into the old shoebox in the closet.
Fast-forward fifty years. You and your siblings are now retired with families and grandchildren of your own. Your parents are gone. You find the old snapshot in the shoebox in the closet while doing a spring cleaning. You say nothing as you hold the 4 by 6 tightly against your heart while tears roll down your cheeks.
But what of the 36 inch canvas? Well let’s just say that we lost track of where we put it years and years ago. That sailor suit that dad had on and the pursed-lipped smiles kinda looked silly anyhow.
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.