Is Less More, or Is More Less?

Notebook Reflections.jpg
Notebook Reflections (Melbourne Australia June 2012)

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!

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