Accidental Works of Art

Munchow_1367-1114-E

As obsessed with photography as I have almost always been I have as well always been interested in finding out what makes photography different from any other media or expression of art. I have blogged about it a great many times. It’s partly been looking at how the technical aspect of photography defines its expression, for instance in posts such as The Essential Property of Photography, The Inherent Property of Photography and The Uniqueness of a Gradient. I have also explored the subject on a more principal or philosophical level, such as in the posts The Heart of Photography, What Does It Matter! and At the End of the Rainbow.

But there is at least one more aspect of photography that I find very intriguing. Photography is the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece. You won’t find that in other arts. You cannot make an accidental masterpiece if you are a painter or a sculptor. It’s just not going to happen.

This is simultaneously photography’s great advantage and its Achilles’ heel: It’s the easiest medium in which on some levels to be competent. Anybody can be a marginally capable photographer, but it takes a lot of work to learn to become even a competent painter. With this much said, I think at the same time while photography is the easiest medium to become competent in, it is probably the hardest one in which to develop a distinctive personal vision. It’s the hardest medium in which to separate yourself from all those other people who are doing reasonable good stuff and to find a personal voice, your own vision, and to make something that is truly, memorably yours and not someone else’s. A recognized signature style of photography is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve.

The fun part, though, is that even without a distinctive voice, we can all happen to make captivating images, through accidents or incidents or just by pure luck. And, yes, we may even be able to produce a masterpiece. The stimulating outcome is that sometimes those accidental works of art that are capable of engaging beyond the simplest recognition, offer us a new view on our media, give us new ideas and provide us with a fresh approach, that we may utilize next time – and by so doing starting to develop our distinctive voice. It has always amazed me that just when I think there is nothing left to do in photography and that all permutations and possibilities have been exhausted, someone comes along and puts the media to a new use, and makes it his or her own, yanks it out of this kind of amateur status, and makes it as profound and moving as formally interesting as any other medium.

Subject Is Not It

Fasade i Camden Town

With today’s sophisticated cameras it’s easier than ever to photograph. Even the simplest point-and-shoot cameras are more advanced on the inside than most professional cameras were a couple of decades ago. As a consequence in one way it is easier for anyone to make better images today than for pros 20 years ago. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this technology can lull you into thinking that if you have a decent camera and some basic instruction, all you have to do is find a good subject, point the camera at it, and you are done.

But good images aren’t about good subjects. The subject is a starting point from where the photographer transcend his or her image into something both universal for everyone who view the image and very specific with respect to the photographer’s point of view. The good photograph is not about the subject matter, but the narrative beyond the obvious elements depicted within the frame. Good photography does not simply come from capturing an image. It comes from the intention the photographed had when capturing the photo, it comes from how he or she «built» the image, whether literally building it or more intuitively working the elements and frame, it comes from the photographer’s interpretation of the subject and it comes from his or her emotional engagement.

Maybe the most important lesson for any aspiring photographer is to stop looking for subjects. Too often I see photographers focusing too hard on finding the «perfect» subject. That means looking for images their minds have at some point registered as great photos by other photographers, and then search for the same subject the saw in these photos. They have «learned» how a good photo looks like and associates it with the subject. Or they go to major locations and photograph only the big, iconic subjects. But when you start looking for subjects simply as trophies to be captured, you stop looking for the photograph. If you want to produce good images, your job as a photographer is to create compelling photographs, not simply to capture a subject. In other words; stop looking for interesting subjects – and start looking for interesting photographs.

We don’t want to make photographs to show someone what something looks like – at least not beyond registering photos for our own memories. There are already enough images of everything you can think of in the world if you need to find out what something looks like. All that is required is eyes. Photography as visual art or a visual expression needs to have meaning, emotion, power, and magic. So don’t merely show what the subject is; show what it isn’t, show what it means, show why it is, how it is, for whom it is, where it is, and/or when it is. Imagine a novel with only descriptions; without plot, motivation, depth, crisis, or crescendo, a novel would be merely a catalogue of object descriptors. It is the same with photographs.

One question all photographers should ask themselves is, «what is my photograph about?» The answer is not the subject. It goes beyond that. It relates directly to your point of view; literally how you look at the subject and more importantly how you relate to the subject and why it’s important for you to photograph it. This point of view with which you capture the image will profoundly affect how the viewer emotionally attaches to the image. Take time to scrutinize the subject, searching for the most important element for you. What is the photograph about? What is it about the subject that grabbed your attention?

When did you last ask yourself what your photograph is about? Or do you just go out looking for interesting subjects?

Vision Deconstructed

All slags folk slapper av i Cal Anderson Park på en godværsdag

Your vision as a photographer is what will make your photos stand out from the crowd. It’s the vision when transformed by the visual language into an image that transmits who the photographer behind that image is. A photographer’s vision is the formative link behind his or her photographic signature. Without a clearly developed vision a photographer will only be capturing images that look similar to everybody else’s.

In my post Vision is Beginning I wrote that the photographer’s vision is where the photographic process begins – or where it should begin. Too many photographers don’t pay attention to their vision; they just never get beyond the technical part of photography or beyond seeing light or composition.

A vision is not something one can consciously develop from scratch. It takes time – many years, a whole lifetime as a matter of fact – for a photographer to develop his or her vision. It comes with experience, by being conscious of why you photograph what you photograph and also being aware of the processes behind the vision. Firstly when talking about vision, it’s a good idea in order to get an understanding of what vision is, to split it into two; personal vision and photographic vision. The personal vision is our understanding of the world around us and ourselves. It’s based on experience and learning, and it changes with time as it grows more depth with ageing. Photographic vision on the other hand is the link between our personal vision and the final photograph. While personal vision is the how you see life in general, photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye.

But what goes into and configures the photographic vision is not only your personal vision. Just as important are your observational skills, your craftsmanship and your emotional investment in the photographic process. Finally your talent is also coming into the equation, but talent has never been a limitation for any artist. As far as I see it, talent sets the parameters for your creative abilities, but hardly any artist ever hits the roof of his or her talent. The only thing that matters is to put in enough work.

That your observational skills influence your photographic vision is pretty obvious I think. The more you are able to take notice of what goes on around you, the more you will be able to discover potential images that are important for you to capture. How much technical knowledge do you need, then? It’s a classical question in all arts. The fact is the better craftsman you are; the better able you are to transform your vision into a final image that encompasses your intentions. On the other hand many brilliant photographers make do with very little technical knowledge.

As far as I am concerned the most formative element behind a photographic vision and the one that has the most impact on your photographic product – your images – is what I call the emotional investment. If you want to create pictures that others care about, that the viewers feel they can relate to and they are attracted to, you will have to be just as engaged in the subject during the shooting process yourself. If all that draws you to take a certain pictures is some beautiful lines or some delightful light; that in itself is never going to make a strong image. If you don’t feel a picture is really important to take – for your heart and yourself – then you might just as well forget about taking it – at least if your intention is to create compelling and telling images.

To sum it up, your vision as a photographer is partly built on your photographic vision, which then again is built on your personal vision, your emotional engagement, your observational skills, you craftsmanship and finally to a minor extent your talent. How much do you pay attention to develop these formative elements in your vision as a photographer? And what do you emphasize the most?

Gifted Students

Finding Your Voice_8Me and my 12 students are well underway in the first eWorkshop of mine, «Finding Your Photographic Voice», which I launched earlier this year. It’s been a really fun process working with this concept. I have simply enjoyed looking at a whole range of excellent photos by the participants. I think it’s safe to say that photographically they are quite different and their skills are spread through all levels. But all of them have been able to show interesting and engaging work. More importantly I see a strong progression in all their work – of course more for some and a little less for some, particularly those already starting out as more accomplished photographers in the first place.

The workshop runs over eight weeks and we have already passed more than half way through it. At the moment each participant is working on her or his personal project which they will continue with until the end of the workshop. I really look forward to seeing how they will pull their projects together as coherent photo essays. As mentioned I have really taken pleasure in seeing so much good work, and I have surely spend more time that I should have in the picture critique of each participant’s work each week. But what can I say? When you enjoy doing something, why not do it? That is the fundamental in the creative process, no matter what we do. Giving constructive and useful critique is in itself of great value to me.

For me, personally, it was also very encouraging to notice that after I had launched the workshop it was fully booked within two days. On the other hand it was of course less satisfying for those who tried to apply for the workshop after it was indeed full. In the end I opened up for more participants than I had first intended, but still quite a few was left out of this first workshop. I can only reassure you with saying that more workshops will come. Having 12 students in this kind of eWorkshop turned out to be a little more than preferable, simply because I have had to allocate too much of my time needed for other work. I have used late evenings and sometimes nights to get through with the picture critique. Again when it’s fun it doesn’t really matter. But for future workshops I think I will limit them to eight participants. That seems to be an ideal number of students.

Under here I showcase examples of work from the participants of this first eWorkshop. I hope you enjoy the images as much as I have.

© Dalia Daud
© Dalia Daud
© Can Ozdemir
© Can Ozdemir
© Lynne Hayes
© Lynne Hayes
© Regine Lord
© Regine Lord
© Linda Paul
© Linda Paul
© Christopher O'Keefe
© Christopher O’Keefe
© Susan Judd
© Susan Judd
© Angeline Munoz
© Angeline Munoz
© Andrea Cochran-Pastel
© Andrea Cochran-Pastel
© Phil Vaughn
© Phil Vaughn
© Anita Otrebski
© Anita Otrebski
© Monica Engell
© Monica Engell

Improvising in a Spontaneous Flow

En ungt par og deres hun nyter en øl ved Peddler Brewing Company

When I started out photographing more seriously (many, many years ago…) I used my camera quite methodical, even orderly, making sure the composition was «right», the exposure was equally so and that everything was in order and «perfect». It was a very rational process. Today I would say that I was thinking too much. I wasn’t able – or letting myself be able – to be loose and reactive to an environment. «Going with the flow» was not my photographic style.

Back then it was all landscape and nature photography – and I could take my time to make everything «right». It all rapidly changed, though, when I started to work more in a documentary kind of style. Suddenly the subject became unpredictable, moving fast one way or another, not giving me time to approach it the previous rational way. Instead I had to adapt to a more spontaneous work flow, reacting to whatever happened in front of me quickly, without thinking. At first it was quite frustrating, but as I got into this for me new approach, pictures started to become different than before, become more interesting, become less predictable and I started to capturing pictures that not everybody else was taking.

I was slowly finding my own way, my own photographic voice. Whereas pictures before had been beautiful lit and with well balanced compositions – albeit being quite boring when I look back on them today, suddenly everything was much messier. But a messy result that was intriguing and over time I was able to handle better and better. The pictures started to be not only beautiful graphical images, but had emotional content and showed moments that could engage the viewers.

Today I solely trust my intuition during the actual shooting situation. Because I know if I let go of my rational self, something impulsive and intriguing may happen, I may be able to capturing something my rational mind would never have been able to. In my workshops I try to emphasize this approach, and make the students let go of their rational mind. For many it’s hard, even difficult to grasp the concept of not thinking during the shooting. Because of course you don’t stop thinking completely. You still need to be aware of exposure time and depth of field, but all this is pushed to into the back of the head, becoming more of an instinctive act. Usually there is also a fair amount of thinking and planning before a shooting session, not to say afterwards in the editing process. But at the moment the shutter is pushed I try to let go of myself self and let the flow take me wherever it does.

True enough it’s a complicated matter to explain, I’ve never really been able to find a good way to fully clarify and resolve the apparent conflict between goals, plans and rational thinking, on one hand, and «going with the flow» on the other. For many these seem like structural opposites. But they are not really. Remember what the great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: «Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph.»

Photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, Wright Morris, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Strand have all demonstrated that work done quickly does not necessarily mean done with inferiority.

Now during a shooting I abandon myself to the project, photographing quickly, loosely, intuitively – photographing every composition my eye can see. I try as best I can to avoid analyzing or judging the images – I just photograph. I set aside my years of training in pre-visualization and control and instead photograph by going with the flow, trying to be responsive to what was in front of me instead of manipulating what was in front of me.

In his book The Creative Life in Photography, LensWork editor Brooks Jensen says: «[…] I learned […] that spontaneity and improvisation are not what I originally thought. They are not mere willy-nilly freewheeling, despite the fact that it might sound like that in the hands of a great improviser like Miles Davis. Improvisation is more like a tension between structure and total abandon. Spontaneity is not structurelessness; indeed it is best comprehended when seen in contrast to regularity – beat and measure against riff and phrase. In music, it is choosing a song, a beat, and then letting go within that framework. In photography – or at least in the photographing process – it is allowing yourself to play while holding to the definitions and limits of the project. It seems framework is a necessary prerequisite to improvisation and improvisation is only possible within such a framework. It seems obvious to me now, but when I think of all those years wandering around the countryside looking for photographs, I realize my lack of framework worked against my creativity. Who’d have thought?»

When the Picture Fails

Solen er på vei ned over Mohave-ørkenen

I think we have all experienced it. The frustration. Of coming home and looking at the pictures we have just captured, and then find out they don’t look what we wanted them to or they don’t look how we experienced whatever we were shooting. The pictures don’t show the majestic landscape as I saw it – the pictures don’t convey the joy I thought I was capturing between two people – they don’t express what I felt in a very intense moment for myself.

Why is it so? Why don’t our pictures show the world as it occurred to us at the moment of capturing? Why is it so disappointing?

For the most part I think there are three reasons. One is related to our focus on technique, the second to our focus on subject matter and how we have been taught to see the world, and finally we haven’t quite learned the visual language and how to express visually our vision.

When it comes to technique, we have been so seduced by technology and technique – by ads, by photo magazines, by our peers, by the technological development itself – that we have forgotten the creative part – our vision and our intent. We have forgotten that the art of photography lies in the cross line where craft and vision converge. Too often we get so caught up in the maddening learning curve of the craft that we neglect the vision, or we are so spellbound by technological possibilities. Or just think a technically perfect pictures is all what matters. In the mad rush to learn all the buttons and dials; we forget that photography is not a technical pursuit. Photography, as an art, is an aesthetic, creative, and expressive pursuit. Yet that pursuit is achieved by technical means, but the moment we leave vision out of the equation and make it merely about technique, our photograph won’t be able to convey what we felt and what we saw at the moment of shooting.

Then the focus of the «right» subject matter – what we have been taught to think as the «right» subject matter – is also getting in our way when we are shooting. This emphasis is all about finding the right landscapes, catching the right emotions, revealing the right sociological conditions. The conventional photographer who goes after the «right» subject matter is a bit like a big game hunter searching for prey or a butterfly collector looking for another specimen to add to his or her collection. Through our society, magazine we read, pictures that surrounds us, what we pick up from other photographers and experts on photography, we form concepts about what subject matter is attractive, what is artistic, what is worthwhile. These concepts are like filters or templates that shade our experience. The same goes for rules of composition, the «right» light or tried and true techniques. Bound by these concepts of what is beautiful or «right» or dramatic or unusual, we search for scenes that fit the concept – a dramatic sunset, a beautiful waterfall – snap! What happens is that these concepts of conventional subject matter become obstacles to clear seeing.

Finally if you intend to show that majestic landscape and make the viewer feel it just as you did when you saw it, it’s not enough to just put your camera to your eye, press the shutter button and think you have gotten it. If we really want to express the majestically nature of the landscape, we need to understand how to express it. That a wideangel view might actually lesson the majestic feeling, that without a foreground and something to show the scale the viewer will not see the grandness of the landscape. We need to understand how to direct the eye of the viewer around in the picture so that she or he will experience somewhat the same as you as the photographer did when you captured the scenery – or what you intended to express. The visual language is not a concise science, but we still need to understand how it works in its subtle way, again not as a «right» way, but by conscious choices to emphasize what we intend to express.

I know; it’s not easy to get everything «right», but by practise and by willingness to learn we can all improve our photographic skills and eventually be able to express our intent and vision as we had in mind when capturing a photo. These and other factors I will address in more depth in my upcoming eWorkshop.

Summer’s Instagrams

Lunsj på en av mange kafeer i SeattleAnyone following my blog should by now know that I enjoy playing around with the app Instagram. I just love the simplicity of the interface and how playful it inspires the users to become. Of course being a «serious» photography, I face the fact that it’s still not quite accepted in many circles to let an app like Instagram «take over» the craftsmanship. And I am just fine with that. As I discussed in my post The Impediment of Art not long ago I don’t see apps like Instagram as a threat to or a deterioration of the craft or an easy way to create an artsy look, but just one more tool for photographers to play around with.

Anyway, today I am just posting a few of this summer’s Instagrams I have had fun making. In honesty I haven’t taken a lot, but it’s always stimulating whenever I get myself to use the app. I mostly tend to use it for private photos, but I have decided I will try to exploit Instagram and other apps on assignments as well – if I can my clients to accept the idea. It certainly would bring a more contemporary feeling to the images.

I don’t only use Instagram anymore but a combinations of apps. My favourites in addition to Instagram are Camera ZOOM FX and LittlePhoto where I often start the processing using one of the others and finalizing it in Instagram – which I also use as the only sharing platform. Both Camera ZOOM FX and LittlePhoto offer more options than Instagram. Where Instagram is the easy one click app with just a few tweaks offered, the two others have a more complex interface. LittlePhoto is definitely the more advance while with Camera ZOOM FX it’s possible to add on more features with additional downloads. All three of them are still easy to use, and as I have said a couple of times already now really fun to play around with.

If you want to follow me on Instagram my profile name is ottovonmunchow.

Know Yourself

Utsikten et eller annet sted fra På Schiphol flyplass

Our artistic work – or creative work – is a mirror of ourselves. It reflects who we are, our interests, what is important in our lives. Or ought to. Because only when we invest ourselves in our work, will it be a manifestation of who we are, whether in a subtle way or more tangible. If we don’t create with our hearts, the result will be both dreary and uninspired. Without emotional engagement and passion our work is going to reflect exactly that. Even when I am on assignment I try to find some way of getting myself involved no matter how boring the subject or the assignment might be in the first place. I use myself, and I try to find some connection I can personally relate to. When I teach my photographic workshops I try to learn more about each participant’s personal interests so that I can better help her or him with finding a photographic project to shoot during the workshop, a project that she or he can related to.

At best your creative expression becomes an extension of yourself. Just as whatever you say reflects who you are, so it does for all other ways of expressing yourself. And just as with language, the more you know where you stand and who you are, the better you are able to express your opinions. If you are a photographer – but it applies equally to all other means of artistic expressions – you will be able to engage the viewer, only if you are engaged yourself. When your photographs are at best, you are photographing yourself, even when it’s not literally a photo of yourself. I see myself in the way I shoot, why I shoot, how I shoot, what I shoot, and not the least my intentions – what it is I am trying to tell with my photographs. For me to be able to do so, I need to know myself – what I stand for, what I am interested in, what I believe in and what is important in life for me.

Know yourself. That is important in photography, in all kinds of artistic expression as it is in life in general. In his book 25 Lessons I’ve Learned about Photography Life the photographer Lorenzo Dominguez writes this about knowing yourself: «Every photograph I have taken has clearly been an expression of me and my outlook and love for life—an endeavor which details the idiosyncrasies of my perspective, of the elected nuances of light and shadow which at a moment’s notice pique my senses, of the people and the playful pretenses I delightfully wish to remember, and of all the warm and tender moments in my life, which ultimately have surrendered to a single click of a button.»

He continues: «Be aware that the camera is simply an extension of ourselves, and thus you should take care to have your photos reflect who you are, what you see, and what your life is all about, because ultimately your photos are a visual history of who you are, what you do, and where you’ve been.»

Dominguez suggest a couple of ways in how to find out more about yourself. Since this is about photography and your photos should reflect who you are, what better way to do so than making self-portraits? It might be frightening to capture the real you, but if you go about without considering how others might see you and without preconceived ideas about yourself, you might be surprised what you’ll find. Be honest and try to see yourself as you are. For some it will be easy, but many others, if not most, will shy away. Another way to get to know yourself is seeking out solitude. I know with myself, nothing clears my mind as much as being out in Mother Nature all by myself. I find myself and the real me this way maybe after a period of intense work where I have not had time to just be myself. Successful artists, scientists, gurus, and photographers all know that solitude is the sine qua non of creation, discovery and epiphany. And for some, the means to personal salvation. It’s when I have time for myself the great new ideas come about, when I find solutions to problems I have been struggling with and, maybe most importantly, find peace of mind.

By the way 25 Lessons I’ve Learned about Photography Life is a book I really recommend if you are interested in the creative process of photography – and yes, life. Lorenzo Dominguez is an author, a writer and an award-winning street photographer. TimeOutNY calls him a «photography sensation» and NY Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker, considers him a «Flickr star.»

More Instagram

Lunsj på en av mange kafeer i SeattleThis week I am on assignment in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and a dream for most photographers. As soon as I have processed the pictures I will get back with a post from Lisbon. In the meantime I’ll present some of my latest Instagram photos.

I have to admit I haven’t been very active using neither my cell phone nor Instagram for shooting lately; I have simply been too busy again. But I really notice nothing boosts the inspiration and creativity as much as playing around with Instagram – at least for a photographer like me. The format and the simple approach makes it all so much more playful and informal compared to when I use one of my regular cameras. I simply have no expectations when I am photographing with my cell phone, which means I can completely relax during the shooting process.

The result is totally different than anything else I would usually do. Not necessarily better, but it’s definitely expanding my approach to photography. And when I feel uninspired or even indifferent, I can get myself going by just playing around with the Instagram app.

If you are interested in following me, my profile name is ottovonmunchow.

Different Perspective


Two weeks ago I wrote about the need to have a vision – or intent – when we are photographing (or doing any work of art for that matter). I wrote that a photograph without intent won’t convey significance to the viewers. If we start with an idea or are conscious about the reason why we take a photograph, the final result will reflect this vision of ours and be of much more interest than a random captured photograph. As I wrote; photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye (se Vision is Beginning for more).

This concept of a vision driven photographer, isn’t the only way to approach photography, though. Of course you may catch a nice photo now and then if you do choose to shoot unconsciously or randomly, but that’s not what I have in mind. The fact is that many different philosophies about the process of taking (or making) photographs exist – probably as many as there are photographers. Although I believe in the vision driven photography, I am always open to other approaches if they can open up for a different way of shooting. As always it’s about expanding and getting out of the box.

One such approach is called contemplative photography. This practise picks up elements of Zen Buddhism and lets the photographer see subject matter differently than at least I would usually do. The word contemplative in general terms means to think things over, but in this case it means «the process of reflection that draws on a deeper level of intelligence than our usual way of thinking», according to the photographers Andy Karr and Michael Wood who practice and teach contemplative photography. In essence contemplative photography is about how to fully connect with the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience. In many ways it’s a process of learning how to see.

The practise of contemplative photography has three stages. First you catch as sudden glimpse of something that in some way or another connects with you. It can be a beautiful flower or it can be something as mundane as a sink. Beautiful and mundane are actually words that aren’t supposed to be attributed to things according to the idea of contemplative photography, since all things have their own inherent value. Anyway these flashes of perception, as they are called, happen naturally all the time. You cannot make them happen, but you can learn to recognize them. The next stage is called visual discernment and in means to stay or rest with the experience of the perception. There is a holding-still quality to this phase that allows things to emerge, rather than trying to interpret the nature of the perception. The camera doesn’t come into play at all during these two first stages. Only the last stage does involve the camera and taking the picture. It’s called Forming the Equivalent, which means to use the camera to create the equivalent of the perception just experienced.

In contemplative photography the power of the final image comes from joining clear seeing with genuine expression, free from contrivance. To be able to compare with the vision driven approach, I have made a similar process flow as I did in the Vision is Beginning post (the equivalent words from that process are in brackets):

Flash of Perception → Visual Discernment (Reflection) → Forming the Equivalent (Manifestation)

Contemplative photography is an excellent practice for opening up our ability to see. It enhances our vision and it can create some beautiful, reflective and tranquil pictures. However, if you are a sports photographer or shooting any kind of action it might not be the best approach. I still think any photographer can expand his or her photographic vision by practising contemplative photography. Since it’s impossible to give more than an idea about the practice in a post like this, if you are interested in further information, I recommend the book The Practice of Contemplative Photography by aforementioned Andy Karr and Michael Wood. It’s an inspiring book, filled with practical exercises and photographic assignments. Just to be clear about it, I am not a Buddhist myself but I still find this approach very useful in expanding my vision.