Last week, I realized I’ve been seriously taking pictures for about a year now, and in that year, I’ve spent much of my free time outside, walking around, with no other aim than to see. Ninety-nine percent of the time when I’m out, I’m not taking pictures. I’m looking at things, stopping and watching, listening, catching-up (so to speak) with the city in which I live.
Something clicked for me a year ago in Tokyo. I felt more free to look there, in another country, when my environment was not my own, where I felt disassociated, a step off-kilter. Everything was a surprise.
When I got home, I plugged that feeling back into my city, and I’ve been lucky that the feeling’s still there. I wake on a Saturday morning and part of me imagines I’m back in Tokyo (or Yangon, or Addis) and there are so many new things to see and be surprised by. Discoveries to make. Corners to explore. My drive for it has as much to do (or nearly as much to do) with wanting to be outside, getting fresh air while doing something, as it does with making a photograph that I may or may not be pleased with.
Which brings me to will. I have a vague idea that photography is just like anything else that requires some level of technical accomplishment mixed with talent, that untetherable X-factor. You can’t just be a good technician.
So many pursuits demand a similar mix; violinists, surgeons, place kickers. There are savants in each, the hyper-talented who have no need to practice and are good from the get-go. Then there are those of us who need to practice. And to practice, you need to want to get better.
But practice only works when you can critically chart your own progress. I only know one way of finding out if I’m getting somewhere. It has nothing to do with posting photos online or counting page views. I’ll look at the picture, and if it looks like it’s inching closer to the kinds of photographs I want to be taking, then I’m doing okay. Every once in awhile, I’ll take something that surprises me, and charts a new, fresh direction. That’s when the work teaches me. You can only take pictures that attempt to please you.
In the newish Henri Cartier Bresson documentary (which is more of a softball television special than a full-blown film) there are a few moments in which simple (but meaty) wisdom is conveyed. Isabelle Huppert is talking about how acting is similar to photography and how “things happen quickly or not at all, easily or effortlessly — you can’t will it, it just happens.” She’s obviously speaking about Bresson’s particular brand of photography, and goes on to say, “it’s the same (in acting) as in photography, either something happens or it doesn’t.”
Bresson says, “you can’t force things. If you do, you are lost.” Bresson has as many fans as detractors, and personally, I’m wary of anyone who’s canonical in any discipline, but in those two quick sentences, he pretty much summed it all up.
If you take photos, perhaps you know when you’ve gone off the edge. When you’ve pushed too far and fallen off. Or when you’ve gotten flabby. When your eye relaxes and your pictures become too glossy, familiar or easy. This Sunday, after working with a rented lens and ambling around from dawn to dusk, my eyes were tired. It wasn’t that I’d taken tons of photos, it’s that I was tired of looking; it was time for something new. I’d learned what I was going to learn for that particular day.
I guess I’m trying to figure out how these three things combine: the will to do something; the drive to get it done and done well; and the willingness to wait for moments and situations that cannot be predicted to flow around oneself. How can these three things repeatedly come together? Yet, they do. Most blame it on talent, and intuition, but I think there’s a larger unknown at work that’s hard to harness and impossible to describe. It’s that unpredictability that keeps me engaged. But it honestly seems like an impossible task, when picked apart.
I think that’s the allure — as one who photographs and enjoys looking at good photographs taken by others. The best work (like the best concert violinist, or even place kicker) makes the technical achievement disappear, and you’re left amazed by the results; you feel the jolt of emotion from the thing that’s been created, and you’re left with a question — how the heck did the photographer have the foresight to be there, at that moment, ready with a camera to their eye and their finger on the shutter for That?