Barriers to Seeing

Seeing is where all photography starts. We need to see in order to find subjects and discover the potential for a good photo out in the world surrounding us. However, it’s not always as easy to see as we would like to when we are photographers. The reason is partly the way our eye and brain work against discovering the photogenic in our everyday environment. Another challenge is various barriers to photographically seeing.

In most cases our seeing is hindered by a range of mental barriers when we photograph. One of them is not being able to let go of self. Preoccupation with self is probably the greatest barrier to seeing, and the hardest one to break. You may be worrying about your job, or kids, or other responsibilities, or you may be uneasy about your ability to handle a new lens or to calculate exposure. There always seems to be something standing in the way of fully and consciously seeing. Too much self-concern blocks direct experience of things outside yourself.

It might be easier said than done to cease all those trivial thoughts that take place all the time. There is a constant inner dialogue going on in our minds. We are always preoccupied with thoughts and internal exchanges. If we can’t let go of self-concern, these constant thoughts act like a shield to both new impressions of the world and creative insights that otherwise might have been released from the subconscious. Although the mind never rests, we can learn to defer our attention away from this never-ending inner dialogue.

If the mind is not overcrowded, not preoccupied, and blocked by thoughts of all kinds, then without effort it can perceive the dog running after a bike, see the couple kissing on a bench and be aware of the flower about to burst into bloom, all those small details that we normally would overlook. A quiet and unoccupied mind can perceive it all without labelling it. Such a mind is a living thing, intensely so, and by far from dead as otherwise could be associated with an unoccupied mind.

A variation of not being able to let go of self is the desire to be original. When we hold on to such an idea as being “original”, we inhibit the creative process. In doing so, we are not creating anything original, but just trying to be different. By forcing ourselves to be original, we close ourselves down to what is, we see nothing with open eyes any longer, but apply a contrived and limiting approach to seeing. Don’t worry about originality. It will find you; you do not need to find it. There is nothing new under the sun—except for you. You will be shaped by what has influenced you, but your way of seeing, and your approach to photography is yours and yours alone.

Yet another barrier is expectations. If you expect to find something in particular, that’s exactly what you will find. Think of a colour and suddenly you will see that colour everywhere, in everything and more often than you would usually notice it. Likewise, if I am going on a trip to Cuba—a country I know all so well—I go with a head full of mental pictures of what the country will look like and what kind of photographs I’ll expect to find and make. If I remain unconscious about these expectations, they will more likely than not prevent me from seeing what is there and seeing anything but what I already have made my mind up about. What we expect to see blinds us from what is actually there.

Another barrier to seeing is the mass of stimuli surrounding us. We are so bombarded with visual and other stimuli that we must block out most of them in order to cope. We develop tunnel vision, which gives us a clear view of the rut ahead of us, but prevents us from seeing the world around us.

This is another excerpt from my soon to be published eBook “Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper”. It will soon be made available. And of course, I will announce it here.

Behind the Creative Process—Book Review

Earlier this autumn Aperture released an inspiring and introspective book. Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice is a book for the curious photographer, whether emerging or well established. As the book title indicates, forty photographers are asked about their approach to the creative process and how they translate that into photographs.

The focus is on a body of work, rather than the single image. Each photographer is asked the same set of questions—twelve to be more specific, creating a typology of responses that allows for an intriguing compare and contrast. How does a photographic project or series evolve? How important are “style” and “genre”? What comes first—the photographs or a concept? These are some of the questions the forty photographers are asked. Curator and lecturer Sasha Wolf was inspired to seek out and assemble responses to these questions after hearing from countless young photographers about how they often feel adrift in their own practice, wondering if they are doing it the “right” way.

The responses, from both established and newly emerging photographers, reveal there is no single path. Their advice is wildly divergent, for the most part generous, and delightful: Justine Kurland discusses the importance of allowing a narrative to unravel; Doug DuBois reflects on the process of growing into one’s own work; Dawoud Bey evokes musicians such as Miles Davis as his inspiration for never wanting to become “my own oldies show.”

I find Photowork to be a stimulating read. Acting as a manifesto of sorts, Photowork aims to depict an authentic image of the creative process in relation to photography. I love the many different approaches and how each photographer brings his or her own thoughts into something that becomes a fascinating, juggling act for the reader’s mind. Some answer are of course less interesting that others, but for the most part, I learned a lot and enjoyed reading about the many different paths that each photographer brings to the table.

A few photographers—particularly a couple of the more well-known— give way to somewhat arrogant responses, at least in my opinion. And some photographers bring forth pretentious and pompous statements. They talk seemingly very intellectually about their work, but with words that actually says nothing and are more like the emperor’s new clothes, if you know the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Nevertheless, the majority of answers are truly evocative and reflective.

I think most readers will find approaches they can relate to in Photowork. Certainly, I did. However, I what I found most interesting was to discover new approaches and new ways of thinking that forced me to think differently myself. To be creative is to be willing to be challenged. And often enough I was in Photowork. For me that was maybe the most enjoyable part of the reading experience—something to ponder on and bring into my own photography.

Interestingly enough, most, if not all photographers, agree upon working both intuitively and intellectually with a different emphasis on one end or the other of a continuum between the two. Otherwise, the diversity and difference in the answers is a great inducement. Like how some photographs embark on a project only after significant deliberations while others seem just to float into what eventually becomes a project. As an example of the latter is Katy Grannan. She says about the process as work that flows from other work: “Ideas come from anywhere and at any time and sometimes, not at all. I just keep working, keep living my life and trusting my curiosity.”

Also Peter Kayafas has a more fluid approach to his projects. He approaches his interaction with the world through the camera without much preconception. For him, it’s important the project such as they are—or might become—evolve out of using the camera without being inhibited by preoccupation to hunt something down that fits with a project. Furthermore, he says about a photographer’s voice: “I think an artist’s goal should not be to find a voice per se, but to empower the one that he or she already has. This is not to say that an artist should not strive to challenge and refine his or her voice, but I think that there is nothing more dangerous to original work than trying to create a voice”.

Another enjoyable part of the reading experience was learning about photographers and how they think that I had never heard about before. Two such photographers were for me Kelli Connell and Matthew Connors. I ended up buying some of their books, although out of print, still available second hand on Amazon.

The format of the book—the same twelve questions to all photographers—is both its strength and its weakness. It’s of great value to be able to directly compare how different photographers think about various aspects of their body of work and the creative process. But sometimes I would have liked for follow up questions to elaborate some of the more pensive answers. I would also have loved to learn more about how other cultures besides Western culture think about the process and practice of photography. Most photographers in Photowork are based in United States. Although there are a handful of photographers from other parts of the world, how interesting wouldn’t it be to learn how photographers from Asia, Africa or South America approach their photography creatively.

At first I was taken aback with the fact, that Photowork doesn’t show any photos. That’s right—text only. While the book is a collection of interviews where artists talk about their photographic processes and practices, there are no actual photos to be looked at between the questioning. At first, I thought it was silly. A book on photography without any photos? But this was clearly a deliberate decision. Since the artists speak specifically to creating a body of work, I can see how it would be difficult to pick and choose any one or couple of photos to represent the whole when the conversation calls for understanding a series—both how it is made and how it exists in the larger scope of things. Plus, including any number of photos of the many artists’ in question might have been disruptive to the ideas being discussed, when, in fact, the inquisitive reader is already doing a deep-dive on any names that interest them.

I will strongly recommend Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice for anyone who is serious about his or her photography. Particularly if you are curios about working on a photo project or a larger body of work—or are already working on one. With Christmas soon approaching, this is the perfect gift for your photographing friend—or yourself.

To buy the book, click on the link below:


PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice

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Learning to Learn

Good books about how to develop as a photographer can be of great inspiration and bliss. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. There are plenty of good and instructive books about technique, composition, the process of capturing beautiful photographs as well as about post-processing and workflow.

However, excellent books about the learning process itself and how to approach one’s own development as a photographer, seems to be somewhat lacking. There are a few, as far as I have discovered, but most of them out there seem to me to be either very lose and general, and not giving good enough directions how to stimulate one’s own development. Or they are too bound to one way of doing things, too detailed in their approach and following too strict the authors thought patterns.

An invigorating book about photographic development gives clear insights and ideas as well as examples, but at the same time allows for each photographer to follow his or her way into a greater understanding about how to develop one’s photographic voice.

By understanding how we learn, as I wrote about in my post The Rollercoaster of Learning last week, we are better able to choose a conscious path toward mastery. But it’s never only one path that fits all. I have always been looking for books that can help in the process and yet allow for individual adjustments. Since I teach photo workshops on a regular basis, it’s only natural that I am interested in the learning process itself. However, I think most photographers may benefit hugely by understanding how you are able to develop yourself as a photographer (and of course, that is true for all art disciplines).

Three books I really have enjoyed and as such recommend are quiet different. The Passionate Photographer by Steve Simon take a broader approach, talking not only about the learning process, but also about more practical aspects of photography. As such it’s quite a complete book. Tao of Photography by Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro has a more philosophical approach. It draws upon Taoist wisdom and photographic artistry to provide insights into creativity, spirituality and awareness training (and don’t let this discourage you, it’s a great book for any photographers). Finally, The Creative Fight by Chris Orwig is more a book about creativity in general and how to develop it. However, since Orwig is a photographer himself and use a photographic reference in the book, it’s definitely one for photographers. The book teaches you about how to discover your own creative voice. All three I highly recommend (and I am not paid to say so).

As I am always looking for new books, I have a question for you: Have you come across inspirational books about creative and photographic development that you would like to recommend? I look forward to reading your suggestions.

Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography

TEN MORE - Ten More Ways to Improve Your Craft Without Buying Ge

If you are little adamant about your photography, if you want to become a better photographer, and if you want to learn more about how to make your photographs more engaging, there is a vast resource of information you may draw upon. I am thinking about a place called Craft&Vision. It’s something the Canadian photographer David duChemin started as a «publishing house» for his eBooks about photography. Over the years it’s grown, new photographers and authors have been added to the curriculum, and today the list of eBooks is extensive and comprehensive. The best thing; the books are inexpensive and full of inspiration.

Some of them are even free. A couple of weeks ago the eBook Ten More was released for free. It’s actually an older book, a follow-up of duChemin’s very first eBook, Ten, published some years ago, but only now has it been made available for free downloading.

Ten More is exactly what the title indicates: Ten ideas on how you can improve your photography. It’s not ten simple tricks that promise you to become a master photographer over night, but really useful ways of thinking about the photographic process and even with exercises accompanying each section. If you try to take up on the suggestion and implement the ideas in your photography it will surely improve the final result, your images – over time. duChemin is quite clear about it himself, that there are no easy ways to master photography. It takes work, it takes effort and it takes time. As he says in Ten More there aren’t any shortcuts, but the longer path will in the end make you a better photographer. The ten suggestion (and there is actually an eleventh bonus tip added at the end) are down to earth and in many ways very basic, such as getting closer, simplify, taking risks and shoot with the heart – to mention a few. But they work. They are a collection of ten (+1) ways in which you can work on your craft. According to duChemin «they are steps I think we need to return to once in a while, to return us to the basics, or to re-calibrate ourselves. There’s nothing magic here, [the goal is] to bring us back to the most important stuff, which in turn will free us from the endless tips and tricks and how-to stuff and set us on our own path of artistic discovery.»

David duChemin is an excellent educator, he writes in a language that everybody can understand and relate to, with flair and an inspiring voice. He doesn’t pretend, but as one of the ten steps suggest, speaks from the heart, with honesty and integrity. For him the technical part of photography is only a means to the end, he is more concerned with the creative side of the process and the actually making of photographs. duChemin is an experience photograph and popular workshop-teacher, and he draws upon this experience when he extracts the essence of what is important in the shooting process. Even skilled photographers would benefit from practicing these ten (and one more) tips. Throughout the Ten More, duChemin uses example of his eminent work to illustrate his points.

As mentioned in the beginning Ten More is a follow-up of Ten, with equally down-to-earth tips and also available for free downloading, along with the eBooks Craft & Vision 1 and Craft & Vision 2. If you need some inspiration, download one of this plain eBooks – or try one of the other inexpensive books available at Craft&Vision.