Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Making Photographs


Trillium and fern fiddleheads, Robert H Treman State Park, Ithaca, NY

In his short essay, "A Personal Credo" (updated 1982, in The Unknown Ansel Adams), Ansel Adams writes about the difference between taking a photograph and making one. This is an important distinction.

I'm not sure when I first began watching my own language on this point, using making by preference; I may have been influenced by Adams directly, having read at some earlier time the original 1994 version of his Credo. I do know that I've been making this distinction in my own language for some time, and that reading it again in his updated Credo was both revelation and reminder.

Adams writes:

The relative importance of photographic craft and its expressive aspects must be clarified. We would not go to a concert to hear only scales performed—even if they were played with consummate skill—nor would we enjoy a sloppy rendition of great music. In photography, technique is frequently exalted for its own sake; or, worst of all, is renounced as an impediment to creative work. The unfortunate complement to this situation occurs when a serious and potentially important statement is rendered impotent by a photographer's inferior understanding of the mechanics of production. Sympathetic interpretation seldom evolves from a predatory attitude; the common term taking a picture is more than just an idiom; it is a symbol of exploitation. Making a picture implies a creative resonance essential to profound expression.

The difference is in the language itself: to hear photographers talk about grabbing a shot, or taking, or stealing an image, or capturing a moment—these are all aggressive, almost violent actions. The indicate the mindset of a conqueror, one who seeks to possess or own; as though taking a photo of a mountain peak meant you could own the mountain. There is present that inculcated grasping personality-ego in such language, such attitudes.

To hear photographers speak of making an image, though, changes the relationship utterly. The work becomes a collaboration, a partnership, a living relationship between subject, photographer, and viewer. The photographer is the first viewer of the image being made; later viewers can share in the photographer's experience of that moment, if the image is well-made, technically well-presented, and evocative of mood and feeling. Adams talked about feeling a lot. I find his use of musical metaphors makes a great deal of sense to me; possibly both we were both trained as musicians before taking up photography. Adams' use of a word like "resonance," an acoustic term that also applies to psychology, emotion, and thought, is one I often in the same way, in discussing poetry as well as art-making. Resonance is one of those elements of a work that takes us into an experience of the work, and perhaps an experience of what the artist felt that led to his or her making of the work; it is a door that opens further into mythic or archetypal awareness. So Adams' advice to use the word making in terms of photography is in part a recognition that there's more going on, in both the making of a photograph and in its later viewing, than meets the surface of the eye. Making includes the photographer's relationship with what is made, as well as with what the image was made from.

(One might add parenthetically that in poetry as in photography, technique is also frequently exalted for its own sake—or renounced—with results parallel in poetry to those Adams deplores in photography.)

Adams continues in his Credo:

Seeing, or visualization, is the fundamentally important element. A photograph is not an accident, it is a concept that exists at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative. From that point to the realization of the final print, the process is chiefly one of craft; the previsualized photograph is created by a series of procedures unique to the medium. true, changes and enhancements can be effective during these processes, but the fundamental thing that was "seen" is not altered in basic concept.

Both Adams and Edward Weston discuss the primacy of visualization in their work.

The only caveat, and it's a small one, I might have with pre-visualization as a practice is that I have made some of my best images by not looking through the viewfinder, but by trusting my hand and intuition to capture a moment. Discovering this is what led me to my practice of stealth photography. I can hear Adams arguing in rebuttal that in fact I still visualized the image I wanted to make, and I still saw what I wanted to photograph first, before releasing the shutter. Even in the case of photographs shot from the hip, without looking through the viewfinder, I had an idea of my subject, and what I wanted to discover. I could quibble, but Adams would probably be more right than not, in each case.

Also, Adams and Weston were concerned about fine art photography, of course, and their comments exist in the context of their times and their work: remember that, at the time, what they were doing—sharp-focus landscape and portrait photography, captured in a perfect moment after much seeing of the subject, with some of the interpretation occurring in the technical process of making the print—was considered radical at the time. Remember, too, that fine art photography is still somewhat sneered at by both critics and the uncomprehending public, unaware of its potential as an artform in the right hands.

Seeing, or visualization, inevitably leads me to consider another big influence on the way I operate as a photographer and artist. I refer to Frederick Franck, a self-described "image-maker" who I have come to realize has been a central influence on my adult art and life. Franck wrote:

Looking and seeing both start with sense perception, but there the similarity ends. When I "look" at the world and label its phenomena, I make immediate choices, instant appraisals—I like or I dislike, I accept or reject, what I look at, according to its usefulness to the "Me" . . . this me that I imagine myself to be, and that I try to impose on others.

The purpose of "looking" is to survive, to cope, to manipulate, to discern what is useful, agreeable, or threatening to the Me, what enhances or what diminishes the Me. This we are trained to do from our first day.

When, on the other hand, I see—suddenly I am all eyes, I forget this Me, am liberated from it and dive into the reality of what confronts me, become part of it, participate in it. I no longer label, no longer choose. ("Choosing is the sickness of the mind," says a sixth-century Chinese sage.)

It is in order to really see. to see ever deeper, ever more intensely, hence to be fully aware and alive, that I draw what the Chinese call "The Ten Thousand Things" around me. Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world.

—Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation (1973)

I can say the same thing for my photography: what I have not seen closely, taking time to see it, before making the photograph, I have not really seen. Once seen, though, in this way, it can stay with me for a very long time; perhaps even always.

I first read The Zen of Seeing so long ago that it feels like I've always known it; it must have been sometime in the 1908s, though, that I first encountered Franck's work. In recent years, as he has become ever more lucid and clear, working through his project towards its essence, I feel as if I have followed, also becoming every more lucid and clear. Perhaps this is just experience, the practice that leads to skill in one's craft. I do know now, regardless, that what began years ago as a practice I called a camera walk has become for me something much richer and deeper in recent years, and has improved both my seeing and my photographic craft.

In his photographic Credo, Adams says something so close to what Franck says above that it must have been a parallel insight—and we can read these side by side as individual accounts of the same insight, the same deep seeing. Adams wrote:

The making of a photograph implies an acute perception of detail in the subject, just as a fine print deserves more than superficial scrutiny. A photograph is usually looked at; it is seldom looked into. The experience of seeing a really fine print may be related to the experience of hearing symphony—appreciation of the broad melodic line, while important, is by no means all. The wealth of detail, forms and values, the minute but vital significances revealed so exquisitely by the lens, also deserve exploration and appreciation. A qualitative appreciation of a print may require only a glance by a practiced eye, but a fine image deserves more contemplative attention. It takes time to really see a fine print, to feel the almost endless revelation of poignant reality which, in our preoccupied haste, we have sadly neglected.


Fern fiddleheads, Robert H Treman State Park, Ithaca, NY

When I go out on a photographic (and/or videographic) journey nowadays, I always take some time to see my subject before I make the image. I might take a long time. I might take only a moment; in which case there is something happening rapidly, changing quickly, that I must see in the viewfinder before it's gone. With so much death amongst my family and friends recently, I've become acutely aware of the fragility of all things, how quickly and suddenly they can all be gone, or broken, or unsayable. But even the quick photographs are made after a moment or seeing. I don't claim this is true for all the images I make; it is true, without fail, for those that I feel are among my best. A moment of contemplation before releasing the shutter is never lost, and deepens and enriches our lives and ourselves, even before the image is printed so that others might view it too.

So, I have consciously chosen to use the word making in terms of photographs for some time now. yet I'm also aware of the creative aspects of my artistic work in general, not only in photography, all of which is Making—a collaboration with nature, or in co-creation with the divine. Creation-centered spirituality comes naturally to me, as what I've always known and felt, even before I had the theological or artistic language with which to express it. Co-creation is precisely what it is—the aspect of making that is collaborative with the subject of the photo, for example—because making is also giving back, or giving into creation: adding to Creation's articulate beauty.

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