Once a week—or every so often—I will display 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.
The award winning wildlife, nature and travel photographer Rick Sammon has written 40 books on photography. His latest book—the 40th— was released last autumn. To date, “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” is the most interesting book by his hand—if you ask me.
I have read more than my shares of photo books by Sammon. While all are just fine books, none of them really stands out from the kaleidoscope of good photo books available in the market. However, “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” is different. It rises above the crowd.
This is probably the least technical photo book by Sammon. It is all about motivation and inspiration, as the title indicates. For me, that is one of the reasons “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” stands out. In addition, he writes from his heart and in a very personal style. It feels like the reader sits next to Sammon in a workshop or in his studio and can take in his encompassing wisdom.
That is exactly what Sammon offers. He pours of his life wisdom, wisdom he has gained by spending almost an entire lifetime, since the late 50’s, in the service of photography. Rick Sammon gives us profound insights into how to become a better photographer, not by the camera settings, but by the philosophy of photography. His energy and enthusiasm for life and photography—evident on every page in the book—is contagious.
Despite being a relative small book, and as such an easy read, there is a lot to take in from the book. It requires time to read, mark and inwardly digest—and then go out and practise.
Strangely enough—as a first thought—there is not a single photo in “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom”, with the exception of the cover image. The book has been criticised for the lack of photos, but the more I read the book, the more I think it’s a valid choice. As he writes himself, he’d like the reader to imagine his or her own photos—and potential photos—while Sammon describes a situation, process, technique, feeling or emotion. It makes the book accessible even for those who don’t necessarily like Sammon’s imagery. I know this by heart. One of my favourite photo book writers creates images I mostly find boring. It can be somewhat annoying when reading one of his otherwise excellent books.
“Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” is designed to guide you in the internal aspects of photography. Each chapter speaks to an element of the umbrella of mindfulness, which includes health, healthy relationships and emotions, creative visualization, meditation, and connecting with something that brings the reader pure joy.
Not everything in Sammon’s latest book is perfect. I find that Sammon is a little bit all over the place. He sets a tone by the title of a chapter and then digresses and throws in all kinds of thoughts. The book could have been a stronger read if he had approached each theme of a chapter more stringent and focused.
I also find there is a lack of a red thread through the book, from one chapter to the next. What is his overarching goal? Where does Sammon wants to takes us? Yes, to become better photographers, but I miss something that can wrap it all up. It’s like a music play that doesn’t build up to a final crescendo. “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” feels more like a blog, with each chapter an independent blog post, rather than a cohesive book. Which of course is fine, if you accept it as a premise for the book.
I do not agree with every statement or thought he brings to the table. Which is fine, too, as it’s always good to be challenged and have habitual thoughts questioned. However, sometimes I do find Sammon more single-minded than actually thought provoking.
An example is his adamant fixation about cropping. He calls it himself Obsessive Cropping Disorder and rant about how stupid (although it’s not the word he uses) it is when a photographer is against cropping and wants to get it right in the camera. Sammon makes a point that cropping afterwards is nothing different than using a telephoto or zoom in at the moment of captured.
Yes, technically speaking it’s the same. But to me he doesn’t get the point, that getting it right in the frame, is about mindset. It’s about concentrating to get it right at the moment of capture. And because it’s a different mindset, the result will be different when taking the photo. I used to photograph with slide film, which means you need to get it right at the moment of captured. These days I crop left and right, but sometimes still decide to get it right in the frame. The process is different, just like shooting with film versus with a digital camera. Just like he talks about “One-Picture-Promise”.
His “One-Picture-Promise” makes sense to me. He thinks that too many photographers shoot too quickly and too many frames. The “One-Picture-Promise” is a mindset in which he asks the reader to imagine he or she has only one single frame remaining on the memory card. It will force the photographer to become more creative. I agree, but also see that sometimes that’s a great approach while at other times it’s necessary to shoot a lot. Again, two different mindset at the moment of capture, that results in two different types of imagery.
Despite my objections or critical comments here, “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” is a book I truly can recommend. It will broaden your horizon, inspire you to develop your photography and lift yourself to a higher way of approaching photography and life.
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Most artists go through different stages of development. So, too, do photographers. Their development, maybe more clearly than for other artists, proceeds along two parallel lines—due to the dual nature of photography. One of those lines is related to technique while the other is related to a more artistic aspect. These parallel developments do not always keep pace; one may progress faster—or slower—than the other. Some photographers don’t even realise or care about the lack of the development of one of the skills. I know successful photographers who have no clue about how to use aperture or exposure time in their shooting, and certainly don’t know a thing about post-processing. Their technical development stopped at an early stage. On the other hand, some of the best photo-technicians I ever met wouldn’t know how to make an interesting picture if their lives depended on it. Their artistic development never got off the ground.
In my own photographic development I started out with more emphasise on my technical abilities than artistic growth, but today I care much less about technique. For me the content and the story the pictures tell, particularly on an emotional level, is of much more importance that the technical appearance. I certainly don’t mind if both work together to form a higher unit. On the contrary. But nothing is more boring that a technically perfect, but purposeless picture that doesn’t evoke any emotions, simply because the photo is all about technical proficiency—and maybe composition—than content and purpose.
With my own development—and others as well—in mind, I clearly see that photographs often change their attitude in regards to both subject and the way they shoot as of a result of their technical and artistic progress. In his book Photographic Seeing the late and former Life-photographer Andreas Feininger distinguishes between three different photographic approaches, stretching from an almost pure technical focus to a complete artistic impetus. He talks about objective (which I prefer to call factual), subjective and expressionistic approach.
The factual approach is when a photographer tries to make his or her picture render as much as possible the visual facts, being careful to express neither bias nor personal point of view. Clarity of this rendition is of primary importance, colours should appear natural and the subject must be instantly recognizable. Prime requirement for this approach is photo-technical competence, whereas artistic talent and imagination are of lesser importance. This is often stage number two in a photographer’s development, following the stage of the happy-go-lucky snapshooter. (Personally I’d rather call this factual than objective approach, simply because the latter implies some level of objectivity in the rendered photo, and I don’t believe objectivity exists in any photograph).
The subjective approach is when a photographer makes a deliberate effort to express her or his personal opinion or point of view. It means showing in the picture what the photographer felt in the presence of the subject rather than what the eyes told him or her. In essence this is an emotional approach requiring a high degree of sensitivity, feeling, compassion, imagination and courage of conviction. Usually this approach is the third stage in the development of a photographer, when the photographer starts to realize that there is no objective rendering of any subjects and that an imaginatively seen and expressed photograph can be more stimulating than a purely factual, correctly rendered image. This approach requires are strong personal conviction and vision coupled with sufficient technical abilities to realize this vision.
The expressionistic approach is when the photographer goes all out of his or her effort to present his or her personal point of view, even if this requires a form of rendition which makes the subject partly or completely unrecognizable. As in modern abstract art, feeling is everything. It takes about the same abilities as for the subjective approach, only to a higher degree. Often the expressionistic approach is merely a more revolutionary form of the subjective approach. And some times expressionistic photographers rely on photo-technical abilities to a lesser degree. It’s all about feeling, intuition and being present with the subject.
Where do you feel you are along this continuum between a factual and a expressionistic approach?
Last week I was skiing in the mountains of Utah (USA), known for its astounding snow conditions. Although we didn’t experience its famous fluffy powder, we had plenty of new snow and good and fun conditions.
However, this post is not about my skiing in Utah, but about something that occurred to me while skiing in some of the more challenging runs. It came to me that there are similarities between skiing and the act of creating—as an analogue between the two. It goes to something I often enough have addressed in this blog, which has relevance for any artist or anyone who embarks on a creative endeavour.
It’s fair to say I am a good skiing, I think. Although I don’t see myself as an expert, I usually negotiate black diamond runs comfortably enough. The next level up, though, double black diamond runs, they are challenging enough for me. I’ll willingly enough admit that it feels somewhat daunting to get on a lift when you are warned that this is for experts only. And when you stand there at the top of the quite steep run or a narrow shoot, it’s definitely intimidating I would think even for many experts.
Nevertheless, again and again I find myself trying the best I can to cope with double blacks. I just want to feel the power of control and knowing I can do it. And of course the fun of whenever you feel you enter into a state of flow. I do fall and I do scrabble down those double black diamonds, but the only way to one day be able to master them is by doing them.
That’s when the parallel to the act of creation occurred to me. Because no matter how many times I practise in a regular black diamond run, and no matter how good I get at mastering those runs, I will never be able to reach the proficiency needed to master double black runs, without actually doing them. You cannot train for the double blacks in a single black runs. It is as simple as that. You need to pass the initial inhibition and intimidation holding you back to step up one level and just do it—and accept that you will fail, that you will fall, that you will fumble down the slope.
It’s the same at whatever level of skiing you are. You can’t prepare yourself for a single black run in a blue run, or a blue run in a green run. You need to take a chance when stepping up.
That’s exactly what you have to when you want to expand you creative skills, become better at whatever it is you like to create. You need to get out of the safety of the famous box, take chances, risk failing and falling. If you stay within the safe boundaries of the box, you will not step up to the next level. Your art will stagnate.
There is another aspect to this analogue. When you are a rooky, a new skier, you know that you don’t start in the double black diamonds, not even the blue runs. That could easily kill you in a worst-case scenario. Likewise with the act of creating. Don’t expect to perform like an expert when you start out, but rather take it step by step. Learn the easy skills first and then keep moving up and slowly by slowly become better. And don’t get discouraged when you fall. We all fall. Just get up and do it again. Know that at some point you will be ready to take the chance to step up to the next level.
There is a third piece to my analogue. We all want to be good at what we do. However, remember that even the best started out in a green run. Picasso or Cartier-Bresson or Beethoven didn’t miraculous become masters. They did all the necessary runs at each level, too. So don’t compare yourself with the masters. If you want to reach the level of mastery, just be aware that it takes a hell of a lot of work, a lifetime of efforts in fact. If you enjoy blue runs, that’s just fine. Keep doing them. And if you don’t like skiing at all, well, there is plenty of other fun activities you can embark on. Just keep creative and every so often step out of the box.
When I teach workshops or talk about photography in other arenas, one of the most frequent advises I give is to keep shooting a scene. Most photographers—professionals and recreational photographers alike—tend to not work their subject enough. They move on to the next scene or the next idea or the next subject far too soon. Often it’s partly due to impatience and partly because we don’t want to impose ourselves on the subject—we feel we are intruding or disturbing the subject’s private sphere when we photograph. But it’s when you give yourself and your subject time to get used to each other things start to happen. It’s also by spending time with the subject that you give yourself a chance to work out the best composition, wait for the best moment and organize the space.
This process is a bit like dancing. In this compositional dance you make yourself move around the space trying to find new angels to see what they look like, all while relating to and interacting with the subject. It’s an intuitive dance, in which you lose a bit control and just let yourself flow with the energy from the encounter with the subject. And it’s not just you, the photographer, moving, changing the composition and awaiting the best moment. The subject and the world are moving around you as well; the world is your dancing partner. You are two who dance together—without knowing the steps beforehand—even when you are photographing a stationary or static subject. The world is always moving and so should you when you are photographing.
In this world that is always moving and changing, the specific moment captured by the photographer has a huge impact on the final image. And so does the vantage point. A gesture or a look may be all it takes. This can differ from one frame to next, and this slight shift can have a dramatic impact on the success of the image. You move till you and your subject are in synch and the space is lined up to emphasize your purpose of the photo. Bend your knees and change perspective. Alter the juxtaposition of the foreground with the background and the horizon. Move high or low. Dancing with the subject.
It’s all about subtlety. It’s about trying to frame the picture by arranging visual elements for maximum impact and communication. And it’s about finding that moment when you and your dance partner are completely coordinated and in balance (or even off-balanced and by that finding a whole new expression in your photography), when the instant of the move reaches its highlight. The compositional dance is also about tweaking the technique. The subtle difference in depth of field from one stop to the next can perfect and sharpen the final photograph, as can the proper blur-inducing of life-stopping shutter speed.
As Steve Simon writes in his book The Passionate Photographer: «Show viewers of your work a new view of a common scene. Explore different points of view by getting down, up high, in close, or some other unexpected camera position. This is where the dance should take you. You can’t be timid when determining your camera position. Find the best place to shoot by boldly exploring the scene.»
So when you feel like you have worked the subject enough, keep photographing. Don’t stop. Keep dancing. Because the dance doesn’t stop before you do. Work the scene. Work, work, work. Doing so helps us see the world in different ways while forcing us out of that comfort zone we often tend to curl up in.
Some years ago my blogger friend Robert K. Rehmann in a post on his eminent blog (the quiet photographer) quoted a famous photographer who had been a student of late Richard Avedon. This photographer had once said that Avedon used to tell his students that it was not possible to achieve good results in photography without the three E’s. Those three E’s were energy, enthusiasm and emotions. Ever since I read about them on Robert’s blog I have been pondering over these three E’s.
Needless to say Avedon himself was known for all three characteristics. He was supposed to have the energy, enthusiasm and relentless stride of a 30-year-old all up to his late years (he passed away at the age of 81). And throughout all of his work his emotional impact is very evident.
So what is it about these three E’s? In many ways they sum up everything that is needed for anyone pursuing photography as a way of expression—whether professionally or just for the fun of it. Everything in terms of personal qualities.
First of all, it takes a lot of hard work to become good as a photographer, in other words you need the energy to be able to develop yourself as a photographer. If you don’t put in the work, you will never reach your full potential as a photographer—no matter how talented you are. I have written about this before (Creativity is Work), and as I said back then; we all have creativity within us, but most of us need to dig it out. That’s also where enthusiasm comes in. Without enthusiasm you won’t find the energy to put in the work that is needed. At the same time enthusiasm is also about the necessity to let go, to lose control, take chances or just experiment in the creative process. Enthusiasm, as in passion, is what is driving us forward, that is where our wish to be spontaneous, to be free and joyful in our creative expression, comes from. This directly relates to the Greek understanding of Eros as the raw energy of our enthusiasm and passion. Energy and enthusiasm.
Finally; emotions. Without emotional engagement in our work, our photography will always become plain boring. In order to keep the attention of the viewers a photograph—as all artistic work—needs to have an emotional impact. It needs to speak to the viewer on some emotional level. And this emotional impact starts with our own emotional engagement. It starts with our own genuine interest in the subject in front of the camera—and then being able to convey that in the final photograph. Without it we have nothing to say, our photography becomes empty playing with forms and graphics.
A new year is already underway. So let me start my first post of the year with wishing you all a flourishing creative and expanding year.
A new year means a new start and new possibilities. All we need to do is embrace all there is and dive into the cycle creative endeavours that are awaiting us. I for one, have great expectations to this second decennium of the still quite new millennium. I am planning a series of events and projects that I already feel excited about to get started. As of now I will not disclose any of them just yet, but will have to get back to them as the year proceeds.
The year has already had a head on start for me. I went to Costa Rica to celebrate both Christmas and New Years Eve, and I have just returned from more than two weeks of needed and pleasant holidays in the beautiful Central American country.
Costa Rica is known for its lush and abundant nature. And that’s exactly what we explored during this trip, visiting rainforest, volcanoes, mountains, lakes, mangroves and the almost steaming coastal landscape. We had rain, we had sun, and we had cold and warm days. All was a delight. Costa Rica certainly is a country I will return to.
Let this first blog post of the year be a tribute to Mother Nature in images. All photos were captured in Costa Rica. Fill free to comment on any of them.
Christmas is soon approaching and with that a time of sharing, love and appreciation. For most people it’s a time of gathering and reconnecting, a time for the family, a time when we put aside old conflicts and show compassion and care for each other instead. Christmas is also celebration and good food, presents, the glow in the eyes of children, singing, excitement, relaxation, good company and prayer and spirituality.
At the same time Christmas is one of the toughest times for those who have no family, for those who live on the fringes of the regular society, for those who cannot afford presents to their children, for those who live in despair, for those who starve—for all those for which Christmas is a reminder of all what they don’t have. We who have may use Christmas to somehow show compassion and love for those who don’t have. That would really be within the notion of what Christmas is supposed to be. I would like to challenge you all—and myself included—to do at least one good deed, and it doesn’t have to be big, that will make one or more of those for which Christmas is a hard time, feel somewhat part of the celebration, feel somewhat part of the sharing that Christmas is suppose to be.
On a personal level I will use the opportunity to thank everybody of you, who have followed this blog and given feedback and tremendous support, who have given so much of yourselves through my blog. You have truly inspired me to keep posting and make me feel what I am doing is appreciated and more than just scribbles for myself.
Merry Christmas to all of you.