Sunday, November 10, 2013

Two people in every photo - beyond the snapshot

Ansel Adams and I have a lot in common. (well, maybe we have a little in common. I'm ok with that.) Much of my early work in photography was devoid of people in the photos. I photographed landscapes, wildlife, insects, flowers... even my vacation and travel photos did not include people. I received frequent comments about why I didn't photograph people, as if the primary purpose of a photo is to document people or that photos without people are somehow less meaningful or useful or complete. Perhaps there was a fear that there was something Freudian in the fact that I didn't care to photograph people.

Actually, I did photograph people. Lots of people. In high school and part of college I worked for a motorcycle newspaper and photographed a lot of racers and crowds; I did engagement photos and portraits. But my favorite photography excursions at the time were not the ones that involved people.

I started to see my role in photography as being a messenger of sorts, a role that reflects a quote attributed to Edgar Degas:  "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."

My purpose was, and still is, to help others see, regardless of what the subject might be - see the beauty in a natural scene they may never experience; see a  fleeting moment that will never occur again; see the essential nature of something they may look at only with a cursory glance;

see something more or less ordinary in a compelling new way, even better if that new way pushes the limits of stereotypes or emphasizes an aspect of nature that is a little offbeat...

like a huge bear gently sitting in a field of dandelions.... 
see different layers of things, the curves and symmetry of a scene rather than just the obvious; see things in the way that enables penetration of the soul, not just looking at a particular scene but feeling that same sense of awe that inspired the photograph.

This is where I am delighted to share a vision with Adams: “To the complaint, 'There are no people in these photographs,' I respond, There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.” 

I wish I had said that.

It emphasizes a critical aspect of photography that makes it a legitimate art form (something else that often is called into question).  And it offers a key strategy for raising the quality of the photos we take.

Art is about emotion. Good and bad. It provokes, incites, stimulates, sometimes repulses, but ideally makes the viewer think and feel and wonder and want to enter into the narrative that exists in every photo. It changes people, if they will let it.

Keeping that in mind can be key to elevating the usual snapshot to a photograph you can be proud of. Asking yourself, why do I want this photo? What am I trying to convey? What do I want to think or feel years from now when I look at this again? Will I look at this again? In each moment there is the potential for a photograph that can be closer to art. A photograph that bridges the gap between the two people who are always there in each image, photographer and viewer.

The same applies even when we are creating photos of people.  Even though the subject is a person, there is always a viewer who is absent and with whom we are interacting through our photos. We need to ask - what do I want to accomplish here? What do I want this photo to communicate? What will they cherish years from now or want to remember from this outing? Who is this person, and how do I capture that?

Thinking about the people involved, the photographer and the viewer, can raise your own photography to a totally new level. We might not be Ansel Adams, but our photos can talk with our own unique voices. All we have to do is keep in mind the people who are present in every photo.