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Monday, September 11, 2006

Footnotes

by Carl Weese

Ken Tenaka’s post "What the Photographer Adds is Revelation" makes an articulate case for working a subject, for exploring it in depth. Working hard, in depth, is a great way to produce results, but not the only way.

I think that no matter how hard you work at it, photography requires luck, and persistence is a synonym for luck. If you spend enough time being persistent, you will be rewarded with luck. But that doesn't mean you'll get a great picture by returning endlessly to the same dry well. You have to be persistent about looking for pictures, and then take the ones that present themselves. The pictures, and the dry wells, will be different for each photographer.

In an earlier post I mentioned that I don’t find showcase architecture or formal gardens interesting to photograph, no matter how much I might appreciate them for themselves. The problem is that photographs of these highly finished artifacts strike me as footnotes to the work of the architect or gardener. But, having read some responses, I must have expressed this poorly since I don’t mean that all man-made objects present this difficulty. In fact, vernacular architecture and the human-sculpted contours of agricultural landscape are among my favorite subjects.
Carl Weese, Speedway, Salisbury, Mass.

“Strange Creek Independent Baptist Church,” a photograph I used in that earlier post, is a found picture, a subject I thought was perfect when, and exactly as, I encountered it. No great effort was needed to turn the found subject into a picture. The real work involved was the week-long expedition hunting photographic subjects fifteen hours a day, studying a hundred potential subjects for each one that sent me to the back of the truck for the tripod. Making the picture took no longer than the minimum time required to set up an 8x10 camera and make an exposure at standard sunlight settings. I spent much longer talking with the pastor, who turned up while I was there. The picture does exactly what I want and is one of my favorites. Around the corner (well, it's a few miles away but that's around the corner when the location is 600 miles from home) is Mt. Olive Methodist Church. That's not a title, because there is no picture. I have returned to it and shot it at least four times over the past eight years, and it never works. Maybe it never will. That is unusual for me, but it does happen. It's likely I won't keep working Mt. Olive, because the time might be better spent wandering aimlessly. That way I stand a chance of stumbling across another “Strange Creek,” at another perfect moment.

Around the corner from both these churches is one of the most perfect places on earth. Perfect at least for me, as a photographer. When the light is terrible everywhere else, it is beautiful at Beam's farm. In half a dozen trips there—those round trips log 1200 miles each just for the down and back—I have never returned without successful pictures. I keep working on it because it keeps producing. I've tried to figure out what makes it so generous. The shape of the land of course, maybe something about the fairly high elevation. The path of the dirt road, the placement of the buildings, and the management of the fields are all based on the utilitarian requirements of farming West Virginia points and hollows, but the result is aesthetically pleasing to me beyond anything self-consciously designed by an architect. So, at least for me, it's a much more interesting subject than a polished example of architecture or a manicured formal garden. In a place like this, I think I can make pictures, not footnotes.
Carl Weese, Beam's Farm, Evening

Posted by CARL WEESE


Featured Comment by Eric Perlberg: I can certainly relate to the Jay Maisel quote. Words are certainly poor tools when it comes to discussing creative work because in some way, we are our own most important audience for our work. After that, its just ego, in my opinion, though of course I love being told how great my images are. (Thanks mom!)

I have been photographing London on an almost daily basis (many hours per day) for more than two years and I have very very few interesting images of its tall buildings, great monuments, tourist icons or financial district. I cannot find anything interesting there to shoot. Not at sunrise, not at sunset, not at high noon. Occassionally a drenching downpour may bring something interesting, but it's never architecturally oriented.

But put me in East London or South London or North London where the ravages of time and poverty humble the environment and my photographic eye comes alive. I see photos everywhere from the tiniest detail to 17mm vistas.

Personally I don't think the photographer, or at least this photographer, really reveals the interplay of the object and its environment. I think the photographer (this one at least) uses the subject to reveal something about themselves, perhaps even hidden from the photographer. My best photos, the images I come back to over and over, have an air of mystery, not revelation.

5 Comments:

Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Carl: I'm glad that you found a moment to further elucidate your thoughts. I actually don't think we differ widely in philosophy. Yes, one photographer's dead horse may be another's project. But I, too, have my deceased steeds list.

I suspect that our respective primary photo formats have a great deal of influence on our different perspectives. Let's face it; large format photography doesn't lend itself well to carefree exploration of a subject. One must make some serious on-the-spot choices with such a large camera. Smaller formats, particularly digital photography, enable the photographer greater subject coverage possibilities and to delay many hard exclusionary editing decisions.

We certainly do agree that persistence produces luck with many, maybe most, subjects. My favorite quote on this notion comes from Jay Maisel who's fond of saying, "The more you shoot, the luckier you get.".

Best Regards.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

I agree that choice of format will have a big influence on procedure, on the way we work. Or that the way we want to work will have a big influence on the format we choose. I don't know which is the chicken and which is the egg there. With large format you need to do more of your "editing" before you shoot. With small format and digital you can shoot more and do a lot more editing afterwards.

My procedures are very different with big cameras and small, but the things I'm interested in shooting remain the same. I just go about it differently.---Carl

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Rob Griffin said...

When it comes to luck and photography, I've always thought John Iacano, the great sports photographer, said it best when he said, "you have to be prepared to be lucky."

Rob

3:01 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"you have to be prepared to be lucky."

I thought that was a quote from Louis Pasteur, one Ansel Adams was fond of: "Chance favors the prepared mind." I might go off to Google and see if I can dig up a citation....

--Mike

3:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"In the course of my struggle, my attention repeatedly returned to words I had cut out of an advertising flyer years ago and had taped onto the file cabinet in my office. The words were originally spoken by Louis Pasteur: 'Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares.' I have been advised that a literal translation of this passage does not do it justice, but that a fair translation would be, 'In matters of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.' I decided this would be an appropriate theme to develop here today, because although the words were originally chosen by a scientist, the message speaks to academics of all disciplines. Having settled on this theme, I became curious about the context in which Pasteur made this remark. I assumed they were words spoken retrospectively, perhaps by the elderly scientist looking back on a lifetime of discovery. Instead, I was surprised to learn that the quotation was taken from a speech he made at the age of thirty-one when he was installed as Professor and Dean of a newly created Faculty of Sciences at Lille."

--Edythe L. P. Anthony, Professor of Biology, Rhode Island College, 1 April 1998

3:10 PM  

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