Motel, near Perry, FL 2011
This past weekend I went to Tallahassee to do some shooting in southern Georgia and Alabama. I went with my good friend Jon Manchester and then we met another good friend, Todd Bertolaet in Tallahassee and we went off for a day of shooting.
True to the way that I approach finding my images we went out early and drove in the general direction of various towns in southern Georgia and Alabama. If at anyplace along the road we see something of interest we would stop and look closer and then maybe make an image or two. I sometimes make a stop along the road just to make some photos, to break the ice as it were. Sometime it feels like if I do not make the first image at some point, then the day will be lost. I do not care if the image comes to something, I just need to get the camera out and expose a few frames.
While I was having a great time, both Todd and Jon are good people to spend time with; I was frustrated that I just didn’t think that I was getting anything photographically. It was frustrating, but I kept plugging away trying to make the most of opportunities that at first glance I did not think much of. But when I got back to the room, looking over what I had shot, there were some gems among the photographs that I took. From this I learned two lessons: First, there are not always great subjects out there. Or at the very least, there are not good subjects that are apparent to you. Second, it is not always the subject, but what you, as the photographer make of it. The best of my images from last weekend came mostly from my seeing the light and finding interesting subjects in that light and then finding the best composition for the subject in that light. It is always a building process.
Great images or not, it was a good weekend with friends and photography. To my mind not a bad way to spend a couple of days.
A Visual Language:
B. Ball Court, South Florida, 2010
My students often ask me about what makes a good picture. How does one tell if an image is any good? This question can be about the student’s own photographs as well as famous photographs. There is no easy answer to why a photograph is good or not as a major factor can be a matter of taste. Having said that, there are some things that one can do to determine whether a photograph is any good. Developing a sense of what is good or bad can be important in editing one’s own work as well as increasing one’s enjoyment and understanding of other’s images. To understand what makes what makes an image good or not it is good to develop a language of how to think about images. This visual language is a starting point to determining the worth of a photograph.
I have given workshops and classes on how to be able to talk about photographs and on these occasions I start off with having students come up with a list of words that they think are important in what makes a good photograph. I try to have them come up with 25 or so words and then I will throw in a few words of my own. These words are the basis of getting one to think about a given image. Some of these words are very basic, but they are a catalyst to understanding photographs. Some of these words are:
Content, Impact, Mood, Feeling, Light & Darkness
Emotion Space Rhythm Movement Visual Risk
Subject Communication Point of View Technique
These are just a few and with a little thought more may come to mind. To try this out, take any one word and see how you can apply it to any given photograph. Then take another word and see how it applies. Do this with several words and you will gain a sense whether an image is doing what an image is supposed to do. Use these words to ask yourself questions and to make an effort to see in to the image more deeply. Try this with a famous photograph and then with one of your own. Ask yourself how personal your reaction to the photograph was. Ask yourself about your prejudices and how they shape your feelings about the image. If a historical image, ask yourself about the context that you are looking at the image now and the context of the time that it was taken. With practice and time you will get a sense of what is a good photograph and why.
Looking for what is there:
No Trespassing, St. Petersburg, FL 2010
About a week ago, my good friend Jon and I went to St. Petersburg Florida for a couple of days of shooting and to visit some friends. I had been looking forward to the weekend for some time because I did not get out to shoot as much as I would have liked over my class break. The weekend was part of a promise that I made to myself a couple of years ago, to make it important to go out shooting as much as I could. While, over the holidays we had great weather and light, those were the days that I had other obligations and could not get out. So the day comes and Jon and I travel to St. Pete and the weather is rainy, cold and a heavy overcast. I thought that the gods were against me! This is not the kind of light that I was hoping for. I started taking photos mainly because I came there to make photographs and by gosh I am going to make photos. The first few photos that I took were awful and I knew it, but sometimes you have to get started some way.
I tell my students that there is no such thing as bad light, and that day I was going to have to prove it. The best thing that I did was to just start making photographs. The early ones were like warming up, a practice swing, so to speak. They got me out of my funk and got me thinking more about what was available rather than what was not. I started to look for things that were closer up, the details that would look good under the flatter light quality. I look more to the small view than the big one. While the first ten or twelve images are pretty bad, they did their job and got me thinking about what I was doing rather than worrying about what a bad day it was. Having Jon there stirred the competitive juices in me and I worked a little harder. If Jon was getting images, so would I!
While I do not think that I did anything ground breaking, I think that I got some fairly good images, nothing for MOMA maybe, but something to show for my troubles. Like most of the times where I go out making photographs I learn something. Don’t ever give up on a situation, as a billiard partner once said to me, there is always a shot on the table.
Two Views of Uncle Joe's, Right 2003, Left 2009
Yesterday, I went out for a day of shooting with my friend and colleague Jon. I have been photographing Florida some time now, and frankly there are not many places where I have not been that is not more than a days drive from my home. This time we went south and did a trip that I have done 3 or 4 times over the years. We headed south via Highway 441 around the east side of Lake Okeechobee and then took Highway 27 on the west side of the lake to head back home. I have always enjoyed this trip as it has always showed me some new things to photograph. This trip is no exception as I saw things that I had missed on earlier trips and saw a good deal that have changed. So returning to areas that I have already traveled to is not a futile endeavor.
There were two images from my past that I revisited the locations of and made new photographs. The interesting thing is that the new photos of these locations have yielded two different images than the ones taken earlier, yet there are connections between the two both in content and in aesthetics. The older images have been popular and how much the new ones will be successful will remain to be seen. But it is interesting to me to see both the differences and the similarities.
In the original image of Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp what attracted me to the image was the folk art feel in the way that the sign was painted. The stark landscape and sky lent itself to the presentation of the sign, showing off the lettering and graphics of the sign. Now the lettering is much more modern and it has lost the feeling of the original. But it has its own feeling, and still makes a suggestion about the people who had the sign made. The two photos were made on two very different days. In the first photo the weather was bleak and cold and the photograph gives that feeling. Whereas the second has a blue sky, white puffy clouds and the sugarcane is high. The space is confined in the most recent image where space is an important element of the early image. What I liked about the first image aside from the sign itself was the black field in the background. It says something about the quality of the topsoil that surrounds the land around Lake Okeechobee. The second image show what that topsoil can grow.
Two views of the Train Station in Okeechobee, FL: Right 2005, Left 2009
The second is the train stop for Amtrak in Okeechobee Florida. The actual “train station” is a plexiglass booth to the side of the building that I photographed. The building is for the CSX freight train company and I am sure that they get interrupted a good deal of the time by people looking to buy tickets or to pick up a friend. So, they posted a sign saying that this was not a door to the Amtrak office. To me the original image has some humor to it as the sign said what it wasn’t not what it was. But both images became, to some extent, are about texture. Both had good light, which skirted the side of the wall that brings out the texture of the building and in the second image even shows the concrete block that is not as apparent on the first image.
Each of the images has their good points and their shortcomings. In the end they are different images that should be looked at for their own qualities. After photographing Uncle Joe’s I went to the fish camp and met the owner. He told me that he is waiting on the sign painter to repaint the sign again, so maybe it will turn into a triptych someday.
What is in a picture?
51, Peanut Plant, Franklin, VA 2009
Why does anyone make a photograph? There has to be some need to communicate something, an idea, a memory, an emotion, or just something about what was seen. There are two types of photographs – at least for the purpose of this article – those that are content driven and that which is visually driven. To be totally accurate, all photos will have some of each, but most will have as its emphasis one or the other. It is not better to be more content centric than visually centric, or the other way around. On one hand, a photograph should be about something and thus content can be the most important thing about a photograph, though there is something to say for the beauty of just looking at something interesting.
While we will watch the news or some documentary and be moved and educated by its content, we still can sit in front of a sunset and be revived by the sight. It is my guess that to see something just for the visual joy of it can feed the emotional side of our souls, while content will satisfy the intellectual side our selves.
I am called a documentary photographer. I have no problem with that, as it is what I call myself. I am deeply committed to the idea that photography can record something of the flavor of the time and give the present and future generations a view of our times, much in the same way that the FSA project gave us a view of the 1930s. While most of my photographs have a content orientation to them there is also a growing sense of the visual incorporated into the work.
I find myself wanting to make photographs that serve my visual senses more and not be as dedicated to content. What I hope to do is to make images that are very much in the traditions of documentary photography and to also make images that have, at its base, a more visual nature. What is also hoped for is that more attention to the visual will give added depth to the content. It is important that when I stray from my documentary traditions to explore the world more visually, it is how it will work itself into all my photographs that is important. This is because it affects how I see things. For me, that is what it is all about.
Looking at something differently:
Graffiti, Richmond, VA 2009
The image here was some graffiti that I found in an older neighborhood. I am no expert about this, but I think that it is some sort of gang tag that was spray painted on an abandoned building. It is not very close to what I usually do photographically, being more abstract, but the picture is more about what I learned than the lasting quality of the image. What I mean by that is that I make these kinds of pictures to shake up or to stretch the way that I look at things visually. In short this picture is practice. Throughout my career I have made images that are different than my usual efforts to have some influence on future pictures. I hope that what it took to see the subject in this new or different way will work it self in my other images.
While some of these images are interesting enough to stand alone, regardless, I learn something from them that influence all my images. For the past year or more I have been thinking more and more about the abstract quality of my images and how that can be used to make more interesting images and what is the possible relationship between abstraction and content. I have been giving a good deal of thought between literal meaning and what I call universal meaning. Universal meaning for me is how shape and form can suggest meaning that is beyond the literal. If one thinks back to Edward Weston’s Pepper #30 there is a universal meaning to the shape and form of the pepper that transcends the literal meaning of it being a picture of a pepper. How does a simple photograph of a pepper become considered one of the more important images of a highly regarded photographer? It is because there is a universal meaning to the shape and form of the pepper that allows the viewer to have an expanded experience than to simply to look at a picture of a pepper.
By keeping my mind open to the possibilities of visual symbolisms that may be worked in to the photograph will allow me to introduce new or expanding meaning in my images. This not easy to do and making photos like this one allows me to keep my mind open to those possibilities. I cannot say one day that I want to put more “universal meaning” in my photographs, but rather I have to make it part of just how I see things. Practice like the image above is the way that I instill those ideas in my future photographs. I have long believed that the photograph that I take today is practice for the photograph that I take tomorrow.
On another note, what pleases me about this image is that I took something that was at the very least vandalism, or at most the mark of a gang marking its territory, and seeing something more positive out of it. I found a more universal meaning to the graffiti than what the person who spraypainted intended.
Some thoughts about an image:
Hot Dog, Butch's BBQ, GA 2009
I hope to have a new series where I take a recent photograph and write a little bit about what I am thinking.
This past weekend I spent a few days traveling in Georgia with my good friend and photographer, Jon Manchester. We spent two days driving some of the back roads of Southwestern Georgia. I selected an image that was not wholly taken as a documentary photograph. There were visual concerns that drove me to make this image. What I like about Documentary Photography is that it does not have to be pure reportage like photojournalism, but allows me to try my eye, so to speak. Documentary Photography does not have to be as purely visual as fine art. Documentary Photography for me is an ever-changing balance of content and aesthetic. To the varying degrees my photography is a blend of how I see and what I see, the former being internal and personal and the latter being more external.
The picture being featured here is more about the visual than content, but there are some of both. The documentary comment is the hot dog, and how that relates to American culture. The painted hotdog is iconic and thus has a place in the work that I do. However, what seems to be my biggest problem is how to make the subject transcend the literal photographic rendering of the subject. Sometimes I am able to create a visual relationship between different elements within the image, but this was not as available in this situation. Rather, I thought about the paintings of Mondrian and how he organized the rectangular fields within the frame. The contrast of the strong vertical and horizontal lines both contained and shows off the subject. The image is rectangular but one looks in concentric circles.
In the end, the subject itself is not monumental enough to stand totally on its own. The use of the graphic elements of the composition makes the image stronger. It is an image that is both simple and complex. While it remains to be seen if the image is really as successful as I think that it might be, it was at the very least a good visual exercise.