In writing the “Lighter Side of Photography” I mentioned that the ‘magic’ of photography doesn’t come from gimmicks or software algorithms, it comes from our consciousness and following a zenic path to master photography. Most shooters only think about focusing the lens, but this only sharpens what is recorded. The true photographer’s path is one dedicated to focusing the mind’s eye to reach a visual enlightenment. This pursuit takes one from recording or showing a vision to being a visionary. Like any professional-higher artistic endeavor, it is an esoteric journey. Like reaching for the stars it never ends, but as one charts a course and advances along the way, you will make a connection between your existential mind’s eye, the camera and encompassing universe.
Wow! Does this sound daunting, overwhelming, over the top, and possibly even discouraging? There’s a reason I present the path in this way. Think about it: in today’s world cameras are as common as phones and photo images are like drops in a pouring rain. Earlier today, I spoke with a boat worker who told me he transferred 30,000 photos taken with his digital camera, saying many are spectacular. Multiply that by 30,000 photographers I can easily find to tell me the same thing. Yes, technology has made photography so much easier today, while at the same time making so much more challenging finding and creating a unique vision. It all means that to reach a pinnacle as a photographer you need to be inspired to reach for the stars, and need a great deal of experience and skills to enable you to do so.
It’s not just advances in photography challenging a unique vision. Think about it in this way with just one other example, even thirty or forty years ago the ability to travel to exotic places still had its limitations. If you were a landscape or wildlife photographer (with more technically demanding film cameras) you still had an edge on exploring and seeing places not ‘trampled to death’ by tourists. I remember driving through Zion National Park in Utah in 1970 and hardly a soul was around, while on this last visit in April 2015 I had to be very clever to get a clean shot without including dozens of souls in every direction. Today, planes, helicopters, drones, trains, buses, cars, horses and mules provide caravans everywhere like it’s all Disney World. The bottom line is that although it’s not impossible, the challenge of having a unique visual perspective is ever more demanding. How do we meet this challenge and achieve success.
How far we advance is factored by our innate talent, determination, etc., even by our delusions and luck. Professionally speaking, success may be measured by the customer base and its ability in providing a means to make a decent living. Artistically speaking, success in the more immediate form may be more a sign of able marketing skills, but with true certainty it will be measured in time. A professional photographer has to find a way to success of income as best and quickly as possible. A photographic artist has to firmly believe in their creative output without giving much thought as to if and when work will be recognized and financially rewarded. Personally, I find the real reward is an inner emancipation of one’s own being, heightening one’s own consciousness.
In expressing the feeling to others I liken it to the “Alien” movie as having something, in this case a creative vision churning and tormenting in your gut. There’s no relief until it bursts out with creative fulfillment. Hopefully, unlike in the movie, this will not kill you, but provide a relief from anxiety and stress that at times is nearly unbearable. The Ghost of Chilmark Woods is an example photograph I’ve written about (http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs194/1101783386684/archive/1118984529278.html), as among many others I’ve created that has given me an “alien” experience.
You will find, irrespective of your aspirations in photography, whether they be in professional services or artistic – in your commitment, efforts and sacrifices over time will have you experiencing the ‘magic’ of photography. How? I have found this magic enters my photographic experiences in two special ways. I will present them by examples, so you can relate to this mentoring session and look for and find it on your own Zen path.
One form of magic you will encounter in your journey to mastering photography (emphasizing it will require your complete dedication and devotion) is what I can best describe as a transcendent intervention. At times, it’s as Ansel Adams said “sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter”: Otherwise you’ve paid your dues and have taken yourself on countless photo safari’s looking for the exceptional visual subjects to capture, when one day not only do you find that subject, in taking it you also see you are getting an extra visual bonus. Here are three examples:
The photo on the left is called “Tango” and was taking while walking through Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was attracted by the dancers, the colors on the door, and the jagged shadows, which conflict with the dance of love. The transcendent intervention is the couple on the left, she in tears while he has his lustful glance towards the female dancing.
The center photograph “going fishing” was taken on a photo safari. I was simply desperate in finding something of interest to shoot. There was a beautiful sunset starting to develop where a wooden bridge spanned over a marshy landscape. This in itself was pretty, but it was missing some key ingredient. I didn’t even take a shot and decided to call it a night. I crossed the bridge to go back to the parking area, when I noticed two fishermen getting their gear out of a truck. I knew they were destined to cross the bridge to the ocean…and would be another transcendent intervention! I quickly moved to a swampy patch allowing me to capture the men crossing the bridge with the sunset behind them and got my shot.
The photograph on the right “wildflowers” was captured while walking through the woods and coming to a field made up mostly of magenta wild flowers surrounding one yellow flower. As you can see, the whole scene was a nice play on primary-secondary colors. The sky blue and forest green represent primary colors of light, and only the primary red is missing. There’s one yellow flower and many magenta flowers representing secondary colors. Red is indirectly represented by magenta that is a mix of blue and red. The secondary color cyan is also indirectly represented by the interspersed purplish flowers, which is achieved by mixing magenta with cyan.
Another form of photo magic, one that in my opinion is creatively more powerful and Zen like, is pre-visualization. It is the ability to have the intended outcome of a photograph clearly visible in your mind before it is taken. This ability, this skill for a commercial, event or art photographer or for any visual artist (sculpture, painter, compographer, which is my term for computer artist) is invaluable, and I’m hardly the first to make note of its importance in making the best photographs.
The most basic level of pre-visualizing is composition. This is often applied immediately prior to making an exposure, but it can also be planned well in advance. If, for instance, you are a journalist photographer covering political unrest, and club carrying protestors are approaching a city square surrounded with billboard advertisements for soft drinks, cars, and ‘peace on earth’, which one would you pre-visualize as the best background for your composition? An experienced professional photographer sees into the future.
Although some master photographers may be soothsayers, saying that they see into the future is not meant to be correlation to predicting it, but they are clever and learned enough to develop the skills of knowing what makes a better photograph before taking it. If you missed the point, seeing into the future is something clever people can learn. Photographers demonstrate these skills in the way they creatively play their instrument (camera, optics and the use of light) and in knowing what content will visually optimize a subject. Perhaps other elements of a scene to be photographed, including shapes, forms, shades and other attributes of visual literacy will enhance their interpretation. This goes to achieving the message you would like to express, and it all begins with pre-visualization.
All advertising photography is created the same way, starting with a pre-visualization to promoting a product or service, which is then staged and photographed. Movies in a similar way are storyboarded, staged and filmed. Master painters and sculptors often sketch out their mind’s vision before applying paint to canvas or chisel to stone. All of my photographic artwork shown at http://jamesschotgallerystudio.com/gallery/james-schot/ is pre-visualized and staged in a variety of ways to closely match my vision.
I have not excluded my ‘selected sceneries’ from this approach, only in this case we are dealing with capturing ‘the moment’ and the staging is set by familiarity, learning, and experience about weather, animal behavior (for wildlife photographers), or other natural factors that are accompanied by a heavenly hand. By that ‘hand’, I mean you can visualize what would transform photograph from good to exceptional “if only”. There are times when I feel all the years of dedication and devotion to my profession is rewarded with that helping heavenly hand coming into my vision as if to say “if only for you.”
Footnote: Throughout the mentoring series distinctions in the visual arts, especially between photography and compography (computer art) have been noted. Here let me point out that a compographic misstep in making an image means deleting a layer and the time to replace it. If a sculpture mishits their chisel it may be time for a new stone. In general, any significant error of a sculptor, painter, movie maker, or photographer cannot be so inexpensively and easily dismissed. For a photographer shooting “the moment” it will mean a missed opportunity often never to be there again.