William Eggleston, that really terrific photographer from the US who chronicles urban life so wonderfully, has a rule: one subject, one photograph. He reckons that he was getting so confused trying to decide which frame was the best one that he gave up and now makes only one exposure per subject. Of course he’s the first to admit that sometimes this strategy results in a good image, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Then, at the other extreme, we have the ‘spray and pray’ brigade, or put another way, we have the ‘photographers’ who use their camera like a machine gun, ‘shooting’ at x frames a second. And, you know what? Sometimes these people end up with a good image; most of the time, though, they end up with a whole lot of film used or memory cards filled with no result at all worth bothering about.
A disclaimer from me before we go any further. I absolutely despise the language of photography sometimes (I have a post on the subject if you’d like to read it). Spray and pray strikes me as crude in the extreme from a standpoint of language alone. And shoot, machine gun, and all the rest of the violent, acquisitive, even war like language we use when talking about photography, seems to me to totally inappropriate. Now, having got that out of the way, let’s move on shall we?
The digital camera and other aspects of the digital revolution give us the freedom to press that shutter button as often and for as long as we like, without any apparent cost. Of course in the old days of film with just 24 or 36 frames per roll, we had to take a little more care about what we photographed—unless of course someone else was paying for the film. Mind you, even then, you had to change rolls sometimes in a hurry, which might have slowed you down a bit. But memory cards have relieved us of such inconveniences forever.
So, where does all this leave us as serious photographers? Do we just fall into line and keep the old shutter finger permanently down? Or do we take Eggleston’s approach and just make one frame of any one subject? Well, obviously both are extreme positions aren’t they? Let’s look at each approach separately for a minute.
‘Spray and pray’ is not only crude as language but is, in my opinion, a crude way to pretend to create photographs. Yes, pretend. It is not, again in my opinion, photography; it is nothing really. Well it is: it’s abuse of the wonderful potential of the technology of photography and an insult to all serious artists. Strong opinions? Yes, indeed. But it’s what I believe. And that’s it!
But, what do you get if you take this spray and pray approach? As I said you may end up with one or more good images in terms of recording some expressions or movements or whatever. But, look, even sports photographers if they are good, mostly keep their cameras in single frame mode. They know that at several frames a second you are quite often going to miss that special move, or expression or other exciting moment. John Free, the great humanist street photographer and gifted teacher, talks about how we photographers work at 1/500th of a second (shutter speed), so even at ten frames a second you are going to miss a lot with this machine gun approach aren’t you?
Indulge me once again as I make another declaration. Whenever I hear or read a photographer saying “I went out today, shot 1000 frames and if I’m lucky I will get one keeper out of the lot”, I cringe. Do people realise what they are actually saying when they make this absurd statement? They are claiming to be completely hopeless photographers. Why would anyone bother? First of all to make that many images and secondly to waste their lives with so little to show for it? Mind you, a good life is not just about what you can ‘show for it’ is it? So, well, let those people get on with it. I will say no more about such activity!
And now, what about the marvelous Eggleston’s approach? His statement reminds me of how you hear people say “Money doesn’t mean much to me”. Whenever you’ve heard that statement from someone, how often has it come from someone who has heaps of the stuff and has no money worries? I rest my case. What I’m getting at is that Eggleston is such a skilled and experienced artist that he can take a one subject, one frame approach and know he will come up with the goods the majority of the time.
In a way it’s the exact opposite to the ‘spray and pray’ brigade isn’t it? I don’t mean only in terms of the number of photographs made, but in terms of the numbers of good photographs produced. I think there would not be much argument with my assertion that Eggleston will consistently come up with more ‘good’ images per hour spent with his camera than a member of the photographic paramilitary who machine guns everybody and everything in the hope that something will come out of it. Maybe I should conduct a study. Any adherents of either approach out there want to contact me? We might have an interesting experience finding out the real truth of the matter.
I am very Buddhist in my inclinations, philosophically. One of the Buddha’s key teachings was the Middle Path or Middle Way. It is the approach that Buddha suggests we take when trying to adhere to the Eightfold Path (a series of injunctions to do with thinking, action, behavior and so on). The name of this teaching speaks for itself: Life is best lived without extremes, by following a balanced way. For ‘Life’ read “Photography’, which for some us is life! This Middle Way can really only be followed by taking a mindful attitude to all our actions. This would seem to suggest that the ‘spray and pray’ brigade are not adhering to the way wouldn’t it?
But what of Eggleston’s one subject, one photo approach? Nobody would argue that he’s not mindful in his approach; he is actually an extremely thoughtful person when it comes to his work. But, it is extreme isn’t it; one subject, one photograph? Well, it’s not for him; he’s learned from experience what works for him, so he’s come to a balanced position in his practice.
For me, it would be extreme, as it would be I suspect for most of us. The clue for me is what I said in the previous paragraph: ‘he’s learned from experience what works for him, so he’s come to a balanced position in his practice’. And that’s going to be different for each of us and it will be an evolving aspect to our photography too. I mean as we gain more experience we may find ourselves edging closer to Eggleston. Mind you it’s going to be a few lifetimes before I get there!
In the end it is for me about mindfulness. And being mindful requires that we are as much in the now of whatever it is we are doing as we can possibly be. In my work on the street as a street photographer this means being right there and mentally present to all that’s going on around me.
I think I’ve said it before somewhere else that practicing being fully present mentally will allow the development of one’s intuition and, over time, increase the connection between the shutter finger and that intuition. And it is this that allows one to be there for that moment that asks to be recorded and preserved. It also allows your subjects to come to you, to invite you to photograph them. Paul Strand, one of the masters, knew this: he said once, ‘I don’t choose the things or people I photograph, they choose me’. Trust me when I say they aren’t going to choose you if you’re machine gunning them!
Lately I’ve been a little encouraged to read the odd blog post about the language of photography. I don’t mean here the ability of a photograph to communicate an idea or story or whatever. No, I’m referring to the language we use when talking about things photographic. There is a school of thought that asserts that the language we use is aggressive and violent. I would add one more word to these two: acquisitive. Obviously by the adding of this third word, you, dear reader, are safe in assuming I agree with the first two. Let me try to explain.
What do we say to describe what we have done when we press the shutter of a camera? Usually it will be something like, “I’ve taken a photo”, or if you are a little more posh you might say, “I’ve captured a lovely scene”. What about if you’ve been out with your camera for the day and a friend asks about your day. “Great, I got some terrific shots,” might be your answer. And, my favorite: you post a photo in an online gallery or group and one or more of your fellow onliners says something like, “Wow. What a shot. You really nailed him/her/it didn’t you?”
I hope by now you are beginning to get where I’m going with this: taken, shot, captured, nailed. All rather harsh words aren’t they? And really, are they truly accurate or appropriate words for describing what we do as photographers? Look at the image above for example. It is, in my opinion, a fairly good photograph of a father and his young daughter. Looks like they are waiting for someone, or perhaps the father is watching something not in the frame. The child has seen the photographer (me, by the way) adding a nice layer to the photograph’s story. So, what do I say about this? I could say something like, “I took this shot on the weekend, and I think I’ve really captured the souls of these people, and I’ve really nailed the dad’s hair, don’t you think? I reckon this shot justifies the effort I made to go shooting that day.” Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention that on that day I was really hunting people to take some good street shots.
This all sounds rather unpleasant, don’t you think? Of course, don’t get me wrong: I’m as guilty as the next ‘shooter‘ of using this kind of language (though I try hard to break the old language habits). In reality it is the language of photographers that has been used, I imagine, from the very beginning of the medium. However, I think, that the time has come for a thoughtful conversation on whether we should continue using this language or whether we should begin to look at the true nature of our craft or art, and adopt more appropriate words to describe what it is we do and how we do what we do.
Shoot is, I suppose, one of the main offenders. To shoot someone or something is quite a violent act; it’s a term which is also associated with the use of a gun. A most violent instrument and certainly nothing like a camera surely? Do we really ‘shoot‘ with a camera? Do we really “go shooting” with a camera? Is a person using a camera really a “shooter“? I think that on the whole there would be few photographers who would seek to harm their subjects with their cameras, so maybe shoot is not the right word for us to be using. At its very mildest a word like ’shoot’ just speaks of aggression. Perhaps we could simply say “I’m going to do some photography” or “I’m going to spend the day photographing”? To me it does seem a little awkward to speak in this way at first, and it will to you as well, but it really does sound a whole lot better and more accurate than “I’m going shooting in the street today.” This last sentence sounds kind of weird and wrong when I think about it now.
I added acquisitive as a third way to describe the language we use in the photographic world. Words like take and capture (whether used as verbs or nouns) speak of acquiring or stealing or even kidnapping or “taking prisoners”! Of course we are doing none of those things with our cameras. There is even a group on a popular online photo sharing site called Soul Snatchers (for readers eager to explore said site, a disclaimer: a few years ago, before I saw the error of my linguistic ways I was a member of that group, but once my eyes were opened I deleted myself and my photos from the group). We are photographers, are we not? Surely we are not thieves?
This language speaks of what we either can do to our subjects (I have written elsewhere about the problematic nature of using such a word as subject in this context) or of what we can obtain from them. I am beginning to think it might be time for the thoughtful among us to start to explore new ways of talking about our art (or craft. More linguistically loaded words) that speak more to what the people we photograph give to us, and what we can offer to them. I think there is a lot for us to think about here.
Many of us seek to find that decisive moment (thank you Mr Cartier-Bresson), that fleeting gesture, glance, smile or whatever it is that has inspired us to focus (not aim) our attention and camera towards a potential “subject”. But whose moment is it? Whose gesture do we watch for? Whose smile? The answer is obvious: all these things do not belong to us, they belong to the people we choose or feel driven to photograph.
We are allowed into the lives of others, through their spoken or unspoken permission. We are granted access to their moments, their smiles, their gestures. We are granted the privilege of being able to photograph people in all their humanity. I don’t really want to sound grandiose or pretentious here, but we as photographers (and it doesn’t really matter whether we are working at a wedding, a rock concert, at the beach, or as in my case, on the street) are entrusted with a sacred duty. We have a responsibility to produce a true document to show the world (or our friends and so on) who and/or what we saw and sought to record with our cameras. I will be the first to admit that there have been times when I may have betrayed that sacred trust. And, if I am to be totally frank here, I see images online every day that very clearly show a breach of trust sometimes amounting to gross exploitation.
There is absolutely no doubt that the changing of a language, which really is an integral component of any culture and in this case the culture of image making with a camera (AKA photography) will be no easy task. I do not judge others for using those bolded and italicised words; I use them myself. After all, we all have to use a common language if we are going to understand our peers or be understood by them. But I am trying to come up with new words. Like, ‘I’ve been making photos today’, rather than taking them; or ‘I really think I’ve managed to connect with that person I photographed.’ rather than capturing him or her; or ‘I would love to photograph wildlife’, rather than wanting to shoot animals.
And that word nailed is for me truly problematic. I don’t have to learn a new word to use in its stead: I’ve never used it to refer to photography or anything else other than carpentry or woodwork. It has other connotations which I have also never liked. Just goes to highlight even more clearly the importance of language and how we use it.
I don’t have any answers really. I only bring this issue up because it seems that it is time for a new way of speaking about what to me is a true art form that has the power to change lives, end wars, enhance our environment, showcase the beauty in our world as well as to bring our attention to the ugliness that exists but shouldn’t. In other words we are the practitioners of an honorable art or craft, and we really need to be speaking about what we do in language that does honor to, and speaks accurately about this art of photography.
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh lord please don’t let me be misunderstood
Thank you to Mr Burdon & The Animals for the snippet of lyrics from one of your great tunes.
Also a big thank you to Mr Shakespeare for the quote from Romeo and Juliet which I have taken great liberties with and paraphrased rather freely for my title. I am sure you don’t mind and might even approve.