Last Week’s Instagram

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Once a week I will show one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

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Start with the Box!

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I often state that as creatives or artists – in whatever medium you are working – we should more often break the rules, not feel confined to conformed understanding; or as it is often expressed: be thinking out of the box. At the same time, I acknowledge that those rules or all that which comes with traditional craftsmanship is there to help us learn and develop. It can be seen as accumulated wisdom (collected over centuries or even millenniums by artists before us) functioning as guidelines more than rules. Only when it starts to limit our creativity, is all that accumulated knowledge becoming a limitation.

What I am trying to say is this: Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.

We need to learn the basics of our craft. If you understand the traditional craftsmanship, that is – when speaking about photography – the technical aspect of handling the camera, understanding composition, having thorough knowledge about light’s influence on a photo, and being familiar with the visual language of photography; only then do you achieve full freedom to express your intentions with a photograph.

Some believe learning the traditional craftsmanship will limit their artistic voice. However, I do not agree to that perception. As I see it, knowing will only make you freer – as long as you do not let those old rules confine your creativity. It can actually – and most likely will – become a resource for expressing your artistic intent.

Yet, the result may well be an unliberated or constricted photographer, if he or she in a mechanical fashion attempt to reproduce a rigid, pre-established vision and in so doing is averting the possibility of seeing the unexpected – which I have just written enthusiastically about in various posts last week. This kind of restricted awareness can indeed impoverish a photographer’s vision and art. As Philippe L. Gross writes in his book Tao of Photography; «Imprisoned by the discriminatory mind, the photographer with constricted awareness is unable to appreciate the boundless visual richness of the world that lies beyond the filters and projections imposed by mental constructs. Only when the photographer can become free of the discriminatory mind can creative, unconstructed seeing occur.»

It may seem at first that Gross believes the box – to use this expression – is actually constricting the photographer. However, that is not his conclusion. The point – and my point, too, is not to throw this box of traditional understanding away, but use it as well as thinking beyond what the box contains. Thinking outside the box only becomes possible when you have a box in the first place.

In his book, Gross does not use expressions such as a box and thinking outside of the box, but uses the term Little Understanding for the traditional craftsmanship and Great Understanding for being open to the world – both inside and outside – and having an unconstructed awareness. Philippe Gross makes a point that to develop our true artistic voice we need both.

He writes; «General speaking, Little Understanding in camerawork represents the frame of mind that concentrates on techniques, sets goals, applies photographic rules, arranges a scene to fit a desired outcome, and attempts to gain control over the subject. Great Understanding, on the other hand, corresponds to the photographer’s ability to respond holistically and spontaneously to a scene without overtly interfering with the subject. Ultimately, the liberated photographer is a companion of both forms of understanding: to develop one’s artistic ability demands first fully knowing and then transcending techniques – seeing, feeling, and responding holistically to a photographic scene.»

In other words, mastery of the craft’s skill does not mean rejecting the thinking outside of the box. It simple means freedom from the belief that traditional craftsmanship is a reliable, necessary, and, not the least, an exclusive guide to artistry. The creative and free artist can make use of the box without being entangled by it.

I will not conceal the fact that photographers are biased about this, particularly when it comes to compositional rules. In The Essence of Photography Bruce Barnbaum writes that in his book he does «not discuss any rules for good composition. I avoid them because there are none. Every composition is unique, and following some concocted formula will not guarantee a good photograph. There are no formulas; there are no rules of composition. I strongly urge all photographers, beginning or experienced, to avoid any instruction that claims there are – it’s bogus.»

Not surprisingly after what I have written so far, I do not agree with Barnbaum (still, I do recommend the book; it is a very personal and insightful book about his photographic approach. I only disagree with him on this point). Well, there are no rules as such – of course. Nevertheless, painters for centuries and photographers for almost two have built upon each other an understanding of what works and what normally does not work in order to create a balanced composition that is best read by the eyes’ movements. Of course, that may not be your intention – which is just fine. But these ageless compositional rules – which I would rather regard as guidelines, because no one has to follow them, indeed – can be very helpful for particular beginners who try to come to grasp with creating a photo that somehow works compositionally. And of course, any time those guidelines can be broken, as I have always been encouraging.

However, and here I am in total agreement with Bruce Barnbaum, he writes: «You have to be flexible at all times, and you have to work with the situation you’re in, even if it’s not the one you wanted.» Yes, and I would like to add; use all of yourself in the process, whatever you have in the box and whatever you can find outside of it.

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A Challenge

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            Do you see Felix?

In my post Seeing Beyond earlier this week I made a point of training our eyes to see beyond the obvious. In a way to unlearn the usual way of perceiving the world around us. If we do so a completely new world will open up for us – and when talking about photography, a completely new and exciting array of image will come out of it as a result.

If you are up for it, I would like to challenge you. Go out there and photograph and create photos where the subject is not what is seems to be. Make a photo where the viewer will see something different and surprising, where a rock has turned into an animal, where the fur of a cat has turned into a forest, where spilled milk looks like a river running through a landscape, or… The point is to surprise and make us see beyond the obvious.

If you are up for the challenge, and whenever you have a photograph with a different perspective on the world, please post a link to the photo beneath. After a couple of weeks, I will compile the results and showcase the photos in a post here on this blog.

Are you ready to give it a try?

Posted in Challenging Yourself, Creativity, Photography | Tagged | 65 Comments

Last Week’s Instagram

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Once a week I will show one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Posted in Personal Work, Photography | Tagged , | 62 Comments

Seeing Beyond

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                 Do you see the iguana?

The way we human beings have developed our seeing, that is to objectify and label everything around us, is unfortunately restricting us more than it is aiding us when we photograph. Because – as I wrote in my post Photographically Seeing last week – the way our eyes see and the way the camera sees is quite different, we almost need to unlearn our regular way of seeing. Instead of for instance identifying a horse as a “HORSE”, that is a horse as an idea or a label, we need to pause our usual scanning with the eyes and rather discover the uniqueness of that particular horse. Objectifying is perfect for daily survival so that we can respond quickly to new situations occurring around us all the time, but not when you want to photograph beyond the obvious.

We will improve greatly as photographers if we can make ourselves see beyond the labels we have wired our brains to register. What instead of a dead, crooked and fallen trunk we can see an iguana climbing over it? Or see – and photograph – the most beautiful landscape in some clothes piled up on a drawer? What I am talking about is being imaginative and changing our usual perspective. When we were kids we had no problems seeing other realities in the world around us, seeing beyond the labels, we as grown-ups are so stuck with. We all delighted doing it when we were kids, pretending to see or seeing things invisible to others. Socialization, adaptation and communication, however, introduced a different agenda and began to mould perceptual conformity. Our reconstructing skills or imaginations – being able to see beyond the labels – were lost.

Open our minds beyond labels and beyond the obvious can open a whole new world for our photography. Derek Doeffinger, a photograph who has written a dozen books about photography, for instance, suggests that «instead of seeing the horseness of a horse, you might see it as a landscape – the prairie of its back rising into a mountainous neck. Or you may see it as a temple supported with four slender columns.»

Developing our receptiveness is a most effective way to avoid photographic clichés. When asked what he looks for in photographing, Michael Smith replied: «I am not looking for anything. I am just looking – trying to have a full an experience as possible. The point is to have a full experience –the photograph is just a bonus.»

In many ways I am talking about training the capacity to discover new ways of apprehending the world. Are you ready to see beyond seeing? Take a look at the photo beneath. How many different animals or other objects can you see in those rocks? .

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Posted in Challenging Yourself, Creativity, Photographic Reflections, Photography | Tagged , | 62 Comments

Last Week’s Instagram

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Once a week I will show one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Posted in Personal Work, Photography | Tagged | 47 Comments

Photographically Seeing

Jenny Pastore i sitt hjem

For a photographer seeing is where it all starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general and seeing with the intention of taking a photograph. In many ways we have to unlearn the regular way of seeing. If you «only» see like you do when you walk down the street without a camera or when you are socializing with your friends or whatever you do when you are not photographing, you will miss out on the interesting and captivating photos.

For many people – photographers and viewers alike – a photograph is simply a record of what was in front of the camera. There is really no thought given to interpretation, or the fact that the camera sees quite differently than human beings do. You want to capture a nice moments with you friends? You raise the camera or the cell phone, and capture a photo without much more thought to it. But for those of us who pursue photography as a creative, artistic and/or personal expressive endeavour, we learn to see like the camera, we learn to recognize what has a potential to become a captivating photo and we learn that the scene in front of the camera is only a starting point for the photographic journey.

It’s easy to look at things. We do it constantly without giving it much thought. It gets us through the day. But how often do you stop to really see what you are looking at? By this I mean seeing something in depth, looking at it long enough and intently enough that you are not only seeing that it’s there, but you actually study it and learn something about it.

Most of the time, that is not how we see. Our mind is simply not set up to spend a lot of time contemplating about things we see. To be able to survive – and this has been developed over the course of human existence – our eyes constantly scan the scenery and interpret on the fly whatever is. We want to detect anything dangerously as quickly as possible, we want to be able to get things done without having to process the smallest of visual clues. In this process of learning to see, already as babies we start to categorize things. When you see a book for the first time, you spend time figuring out what it is. You study it intently and in depth. But then when you see the book for the fifth, the tenth or the fiftieth time, you slowly start to recognize what it is without having to put you full attention to it. After a while your mind makes a mental picture, characterizes it and labels it «BOOK». You no longer see a book when you encounter one although your unconscious mind has recorded it. Consciously you may vaguely register the book, or you may not at all. Our mind objectifies everything to make it easier for us to understand and evaluate what we see. If you do see a book, you don’t see it as a unique book, but as the object «BOOK».

This is one reason why learning to see with the intention to photograph requires experience. By nature we are only geared to see objects, as I just wrote, this is what we by nature have been trained to do since we were born. A baby learns to see mommy, daddy and other things of importance as he or she grows. Cameras on the other hand capture light. Of course the human eye registers light too, but when the baby grows up it doesn’t really see mommy or anything else as a set of light levels. However, that’s exactly how the camera «sees». Because a camera records only light, the photographer has to learn to see light, and understand how light brings out or destroys the lines, forms, tonality, colours, dimensionality and all other aspects of a scene.

Seeing as a photographer is further complicated because we as human beings register the world differently than a camera. As you peruse a scene with your eyes, your irises open up a bit to let in more light from the darkest parts of the scene and close down a bit to moderate the intensity of the brightest parts of the scene. This happens continuously and automatically as your eyes shift around in scene. As a result you are able to distinguish details both in shadows and highlights and you don’t even notice the eyes’ adaptation to the different light levels. The camera on the other hand, captures one single moment with only one size of the aperture – the camera’s iris. Thus, what with your eyes you can see quite well in harsh sunlight, the camera will only be able to capture partly, either the brighter parts or the darker parts with the other part being respectively clogged down or burned out.

Furthermore, when the eyes shift around to take in a scene, they not only adapt to various light levels, but also refocus the lenses so whatever you look at is sharp. Again, because this happens continuously and automatically – and the brain maps it all – you seem to see a scene that is focused from close up to infinity. The camera, though, can only focus on one point at the moment of capture. In some cases it makes the scene look completely different from how you recalled it – if you are not aware of how the camera captures the scene.

Complicating this issue even more is the fact that a camera has a single lens, while your eyes see every scene with binocular vision. Your left and your right eye combine to see a scene in a three-dimensional way. They recognize depth, which the camera cannot. Just try to look at a complex scene with one eye closed and you’ll see that the scene tends to lose a large degree of depth. If you want to convey a sense of depth in a photograph, you will have to learn what will help bring out that feeling of depth.

Seeing as a camera and with the intention to take photographs comes with learning and experience. When I teach workshops a lot of attention goes to seeing and translate what you see with you eyes into something the camera can transform into a captivating photo. As with any other skill, in the end, the more you do it the better you become. Practise makes perfect. And when you learn to see as the camera you will also start to register interesting subjects to be photographed more often and more clearly. Remember my post Seeing before Seeing, in which I asked what triggers you to push the button? The fact is that the better you become in seeing as the camera «sees», the more clear you will become about what has a potential as a photograph, the more often something will trigger you to photograph, which again will lead you to take better and more captivating photos.

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