Photography: What's The Problem?

I titled this diatribe Photography: What’s the problem?, but with a little more foresight and talent, perhaps I should have riffed on the old Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First”. Because the way I see it, photographers have two problems to solve: How and Why. Most put all their energy into learning how without ever challenging themselves to try to understand why

So maybe the title should be a definitive statement and not a question: Photography: Why’s the problem.

Ted Orland once proclaimed that “there are a few shades of gray that only Ansel Adams knows about”. I suppose I started down the road toward photographic maturity (and maybe photographic cynicism) the day my post-pubescent self realized that the co-author of Art and Fear and former assistant to Adams was joking. 

The veil fell away from my wide eyes once I got it through my thick skull that his boss’ real brilliance wasn’t in keeping the good stuff for himself. It was in the process he devised to work backwards from the finished photograph he saw in his mind’s eye to whatever “thing itself” was staring him in the kisser. He figured out how to do that by cooking up a scientifically controlled recipe of exposure and chemical development.   

If you put his Zone System, with its tired allusions to classical music and all the rest of that fancy pants transcendent hooey aside for the moment, you’re left with Ansel as a first rate problem solver. His problem? He wanted to translate his emotional response to the awe and majesty of the grand western landscape into shades of gray on a sheet of paper. That was his why.

When distilled to its essence, his solution was simple and not terribly original. He showed up right “when God was ready to have somebody click the shutter”, he mimicked the same tried and true compositional memes employed by every landscape artist from JMW Turner to Bob Ross, and he knew how to make sure that the 10 shades of gray he coaxed onto photographic paper weren’t too light or too dark, but just right.

Most importantly, he did it in an era when he could proselytize and create legions of chin stroking, fellow traveling workshop-takers force feeding each other what soon turned into the same old past-dated loaf of baloney. And boy did he ever (eventually) cash in on it, even if some of his prominent contemporaries were not impressed. 

“The world is falling to pieces” Henri Cartier Bresson once decried, “and all Adams and (Edward) Weston photograph is rocks and trees!” 

But with an AA calendar hanging on nearly every stainless steel refrigerator in the free world, the votes are in and the joke’s on Hanque. It seems a lot of people like pictures of rocks and trees. Money separated, problem solved. 

Happily, we don't have to buy in to all the hype to still tip our lids to the accomplishments and opinions of Adams and Weston and HCB and pretty much anyone else who’s ever left a trail of breadcrumbs for the rest of us to follow (except that weirdo who used to play with corpses— I steer clear of him).

Adams called his problem-solving process “previsualization”, saying it represented the noble difference between “taking” and “making” a picture. 

Pros get a kick out of that one, because what he describes just so happens to be the exact same process employed by even the most run of the mill camera-jockey-for-hire with a haunted look in the eyes and a scarier balance in the checkbook. 

They’re always looking for problems to solve, because their very survival hinges on their skill at separating clients with creative problems from their money. They know how to do it, and they know why they’re doing it.

In their closed ecosystem, they know that beauty is in the eye of the checkholder.

Artists, whether fine, commercial, or con, would each have us believe that they are birds of a different feather, but I beg to differ. At the end of the month when the rent comes due, career oriented fine artists, commercial artists and con artists can all start to look like three sides of the same wooden nickel. We’re all faced with problems to solve, and we know we’ve succeeded when, among other metrics, the balance in our bank account goes up.

But what if you’re not a professional photographer, or even, god forbid, a professional fine art photographer? What if you already have enough problems in your life, and you just want to take better pictures? Well, friend, I’m happy you asked. Grab your gear and follow me.

Take yourself to a tourist trap like Niagra Falls, whip out your phone and start shooting. Deploy your selfie stick and get in the picture! The results, at least on that tiny screen and to all your followers on Facebook, are mostly going to be impressive. Niagra Falls, after all, is spectacular. 

Should you stop for a moment and ask yourself why, the obvious answer is a simple one. You’re just doing what everybody else is doing, numbskull! It’s what you're supposed to do at tourist traps like Niagra Falls- take pictures of the damn thing, preferably, with you standing in front of it so you can prove you were there.

But what if you’re looking for a little more complex answer? The why is hard- it’s personal, it’s different for everybody, and our reasons for lugging a camera bag around everywhere may ebb and flow with the stages of our lives. But there are simple ways to start.   

What if, instead of doing what everyone else is doing (taking pictures of Niagra Falls) you intentionally take a few steps back and, in the words of former Red Sox coach Terry Francona, you “play the game that’s in front of you” ? Or maybe G.K. Chesterton said it even better: “The tourist sees what he comes to see, the traveler sees what he sees”

What if you just make pictures of what everyone else is doing? 

What if you were more of a traveler with your camera, and less of a tourist? You may wind up with a more thoughtful, honest, and maybe even insightful solution to the problem of making photographs of the experience of visiting a tourist trap like Niagra Falls. 

And who knows? Maybe it will even become a “thing” with you. 

Unlike how, answering the question why may take you the rest of your life, and good for you if it does.

Consider this. In the introduction to his landmark book Real Dreams way back in 1976, Duane Michals wrote:

Photographers tell me what I already know. The recognition of the beautiful, bizarre, or boring (the three photographic B’s) is not the problem. You would have to be a refrigerator not to be moved by the beauty of Yosemite. The problem is to deal with one’s total experience, emotionally as well as visually. Photographers should tell me what I don’t know.”

Michals' problem was that he wasn’t interested in conventional wisdom like the “decisive moment”. He wanted to explore the moment before and the moment after. He did it by introducing the concept of staged photo stories that used sequences of images combined with writing to get at typically unphotographable concepts like love, lust, loss, and death. In doing so, he solved his problem while pissing off much of the established photo illuminati and expanding the creative horizons of the medium, all at the same time.  

Just like Adams did a half century earlier when he screwed a Wratten #29 on the business end of his view camera, pointed it across Yosemite Valley at Half Dome, and made his first photograph that fully reflected his emotional response to the scene in front of him.

Both asked themselves why should they shoot like everyone else, and in the process of finding very different answers to the same simple question, were able to say, in Michals’ words “when you look at my photographs, you are looking at my thoughts”.  

If you believe that photography has been cheapened by computers, or by Photoshop, or just by the sheer number of people doing it, I suggest that one of the biggest culprits may be “guidance overkill”- advice made easily accessible through technology, not the technology itself. 

Could it be that there are just way too many self-proclaimed “experts” (present company included) giving out all the right solutions to all the wrong problems? Might that explain why so much of the flood of imagery we see every day looks more like “shoot by numbers” demonstrations of hardware or software capabilities and less like simple, honest visual problem solving? Are you struck by a vague (or not so vague) sense of having seen it all before? All this free advice leads us to believe that if we just follow somebody else’s instructions, they’ll show us how to take our work to that elusive “next level”. 

  • They can teach us how to spell “HDR”. 
  • They can teach us how to do night photography with our eyes closed. 
  • They’ll show us how to master all 17 steps to overcoming our quite reasonable aversion to poking a camera in total strangers’ faces in our street photography. 
  • They might even show the contrarians among us how to start shooting (and then digitizing) film. At least these guys always have a why to go with it- they say it forces us to slow down and think clearly, because everyone knows it’s impossible to slow down and think clearly with a digital camera.
  • If you turn pro, chances are you’ll spring for that annual and deductible junket to Vegas to join thousands of your closest friends and competitors eager to learn how to better execute and monetize all those pictures of happy couples backlit and flared beyond all recognition. 
  • Or the one where they’re holding hands at arm’s length, always incongruously situated on train tracks or in front of some beat up old factory door. Or the kid in the laundry basket or the flower pot- you know the one. 
  • If you start blogging, a peculiar male subset of you may follow the time honored tradition of using scantily clad young nubiles as test targets for your exhaustive and authoritative equipment reviews (“check out that creamy bokeh!”).
  • Or, lacking access to either willing “talent”, sufficient nerve, or low enough standards of propriety, maybe you take the easy way out and stick to wordy essays about problem solving instead.

If those are the problems you recruit the “experts” to help you solve, congratulations! Your pictures will look just like theirs, because theirs all look like each other’s. You’ve arrived at the starting line.

You’ve discovered how easy it is to learn how, which is why it’s always so disappointing to see talented photographers limit their problem-solving to questions of how, when there are so many examples of the really good stuff happening once you try to figure out why.

It’s like the age-old "forest and trees" analogy. The way so many photographers learn their craft and solve the problem of how these days feels a lot like trying to build a tree from the twigs down instead of from the seed up. I suppose if you nail enough twigs together you might eventually wind up with something that looks like a tree, but you also wind up spending an awful lot of time nailing twigs together when you could be exploring the deep, dark, fascinating forest that’s all around you. 

We all have to build our trees, any way we can. But there will be a point when it’s time to stop building, even temporarily, and step back to see what all those twigs add up to. 

When you reach the point where you finally know how, don’t forget to get at the business of solving a much more interesting problem, one that might truly reveal the incredible possibilities available to anyone traveling through life with a camera over their shoulder. Don’t forget to ask yourself why

Anybody got a problem with that?

Randall ArmorComment