As a child growing up on the prairies, I spent countless hours laying on my back in the tall grass-covered fields around my home. I'd stare up at the clouds and imagine all sorts of creatures and stories about the fantastic lands they lived in. As a child, storytelling came quickly to me. So did trouble.
Like the time I told a story to my grade 4 teacher, Miss McIntyre, in vivid detail how during the summer I spent a few weeks in a submarine cruising around the Atlantic with my uncle, the submarine captain. I didn't have an uncle who was a submarine captain. I don't think Canada even had a single submarine, but those were irrelevant details.
That summer, my parents didn't take us anywhere. Money was scarce, and my father couldn't afford to take time to take us away. So, I spent my summer vacation playing down by the river. I remember being too embarrassed to admit how me and my imaginary friends, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, spent our summer catching catfish and trying to roll cigarettes with tobacco and papers stolen from my father's cache. But, when pushed by Miss McIntyre to tell the class what I did on my summer vacation, I spun out a story that captivated her. She would later telephone my mother, asking for more details of my summer adventure. Busted!!
I was born with a vivid imagination. I've always been able to imagine something out of nothing. Or see something in the ordinary that others don't; seeing a picture in the picture. For a photographer, imagination is everything, as is learning to see what others don't
"It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter because you can invent things. But in photography, everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary." David Bailey, famous 50s/60s fashion and portrait photographer.
The ordinary often blinds us to the extraordinary, even though it is right in front of us. Recently, the idea of seeing the extraordinary was reinforced while I was watching the recent western drama movie "The Power of the Dog". In a scene rancher, Phil Burbank tauntingly tells his effeminate nephew Peter how his cowboy mentor Bronco Henry taught him to see.
Phil: He taught me to use my eyes, ways that other people can't. Take that hill over there. Most people look at it then, just see a hill. Where Bronco looked at it, what do you suppose he saw?
Peter: A barking dog.
Phil: What the hell? You just saw that now?
Peter: No. When I first came here, see, it looks like a dog with its jaw wide open.
Phil: You just saw that.
I think that most people see and believe in the literal. People take in the world in its most basic sense without metaphor or allegory. How does one see the extraordinary in the ordinary? When we look at what is before us, suspend the primordial need to scan the environment for predators or prey. Seek the metaphors or allegories. Relax your mind. Free it to seek the arrangement of shapes defined by light and shadow.
My first foray into photography was as a street photographer. At once, it was extremely easy and extremely difficult. There was so much to photograph that it was overwhelming. To reduce the clutter, I unwittingly sought the arrangement of shapes. It didn't matter if they were people or inanimate objects. I began seeing the abstracted forms that the camera saw even before I raised the camera to my eye. I had been unconsciously training my eye to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Dorothea Lange, the famous American Depression Era documentary photographer, believed that the eye can be trained to see differently, to see the extraordinary. Ms Lange was famously quoted as saying, "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera". For some people, being an excellent photographer comes naturally. They are born with the "eye". For others, learning to see again comes after prolonged and repeated practice.
Most people, when they bring the camera to their eye, are oblivious to what the camera sees. In their mind's eye, they know what they saw a few seconds ago. But it isn't what the camera sees, leaving them wondering why their photo isn't what they want or expect. "If I had a better camera, I'd be able to take better photographs" is often the response. The camera presents an abstraction. A different view of reality that we can teach ourselves to see if we learn to look at reality like a camera.
To improve our photography, we must be intentional about what we choose to photograph. As you practise this craft, and if you are consistent in it, your unique style or voice will emerge. But it won't come easy. We won't get better at anything if we aren't intentional and if we never practise over and over again.
Way back in the misty years of yore, I struggled to learn to play the viola. For 13 years I struggled. My mother directed me from the tender age of 5 to the hormone flooded age of 18. I practised religiously for several hours each day. Yet I saw others far more gifted than I swiftly pass me with little effort. Some fell by the wayside despite their talent. I was reasonably good and hard-working and may have made a living in some minor symphony despite not being a virtuoso. Those years spend sawing away taught me that talent plus consistent practice will always outpace talent alone. You don't have to be some photographic virtuoso to be an outstanding photographer. Consistent practice and consciously learning how the camera sees will zoom you past those who are happy just taking holiday snaps.
Your attempts at improvement will suck at first. That is a given; live with it and move on–you'll get better. I promise. Henri Cartier-Bresson is quoted as saying, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst". You are learning, so cut yourself some slack. Be mindful about what you are photographing. Be intentional in how you photograph your subject. Practise, even if you aren't carrying a camera. Your best camera is your Mark One Eyeball. Train it, and your photography will improve. Practise wholeheartedly.
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