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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Finding Flow

One of the interesting things about digital photography is hoe technical it is. It’s a misnomer to think that digital photography has made the picture taking process easier. Far from it in fact. When the average family photographer was shooting on film, it was likely that the images would go from camera to lab to family album or picture frame without much of an interlude between. Now however, the image goes from camera to computer, through a couple of software hoops, out onto the net and only then maybe into a picture frame. But this is just the life of the image. The creation of the image has, for the average photographer, also gotten more complicated.

Let’s forget about technical photographers who were concerned with things like the zone system for metering, the scheimflug effect for focusing and other such technicalities. For most people shooting on a 35mm camera system, a modicum of exposure knowledge and judicious bracketing were enough. Digital changed that. For a start, more people now want to be able to take better pictures. The wonder of the LCD screen is the biggest culprit for this in my opinion. The plethora of photographic workshops that now exist is evidence of the desire to be better that is felt by just about everybody. In the 90s you didn’t really consider going on a workshop if all you shot with was a point and shoot camera. Today, I regularly get emails from people shooting on point and shoot cameras enquiring about photography workshops. The irony is that digital promises to be easier than film, but people then get hung up on the technical side of digital.

I for one am guilty of being a technophile. A number of very good photographic friends have pointed out, not unkindly, that my images are always extraordinarily technical in their nature. It’s said as a compliment, but increasingly I wonder if this is perhaps a bad thing. Getting lost in the technical side of the camera can lead to losing sight of the some of the unique properties of the photographic medium. I’m not alone in this guilt. Just about every photographer who has moaned about the low-light abilities of a camera is in the same boat. We moan about a camera that only shoots cleanly to 800 ISO or even 1600 ISO. Come on! Think about it. Ten years ago if we were shooting on film, 400 ISO was pretty much the maximum you could go on 35mm transparency before grain became a central feature of the image. Think about all those images you might have seen in photography books and magazines that were so grainy it looked like they had been printed on a layer of sand. Did we chuck them out as duds. No, we purposely stuffed our FM2s and OM4s (or if you were starting out a K1000) with Kodak Tri-X (3200 ISO) which made created images that looked more like lithographs made of ground pepper (I rather enjoyed pushing Ilford Delta to 800ASA which married a lovely filmic grain with reasonable detail).

I am even more guilty of this when it comes to composition. Like a great many technical photographers I have an affinity with the pre-visualist style of photography that sees photography as another arm of the traditional print arts. Students of mine will know of the hysterical rant that I sometimes enter into when discussing post-visualisation which is more concerned with the unique properties of the photographic medium, in particular the ability to capture an unmediated slice of time from its inexorable march onward. The ‘snapshot’ became synonymous with this school of thought. My problem with it lies not in the style of photography itself, but in the way that young college students get it drilled into them by lecturers. The result is an army of visually talented but technically unskilled photographers who think they are the next Gary Winograd by shooting a roll of film on a Holga. Utter rubbish.

But…there is something to be said of the freedom that comes with letting go of the technical. Freestyle photography if you will. Only, it’s extraordinarily difficult for someone who has learned to be technically refined to ‘let go’. In a way it’s easier for someone who is trying to learn photography. Happy accidents occur regularly. Oddly they start to disappear the better the photographer becomes. The more controlled the photographer, the more disastrous the accidents.

One of the best books I have ever read (I believe it is now available as an app for ipad) is Jim Brandenburg’s ‘Chased By The Light’. His 90 day photographic project, odyssey actually, had him shoot only one frame a day. No others were allowed, not even to ensure the correct exposure. His images are technically flawless (most of them at any rate), but evince something of that captured moment, that is so often lacking from technical images. He is one of the living masters and knows his craft better than most. For him the technical is probably no longer even a concern. Composition and craft are like breathing. So he is now able to concentrate on the moment, of the flow around him, and forget about the technicalities. Or so the images suggest.

The point of all this is really that we should, just for one day perhaps, forget about trying to get everything right in a photograph. We fuss about the details, which is a good thing, but we often lose sight of the beauty around us. Maybe letting go and playing is a good idea. Try that camera phone maybe. Or be like the crazy college student and have a go with the Holga. I personally am eying out some film in the fridge that is long past its expiry date, but would still work absolutely fine in my old FE2. Funny thing is I trusted the meter on the old camera more than I do on my modern DSLR (the joys of an LCD screen to chimp). Maybe finding flow is in not being able to control everything, because in a way that’s exactly what digital has given us. Complete control.

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