14. Shoot first…

…ask questions later

Love in the Time of Cholera

When I look through the photographs uploaded to Flickr I am struck, not only by the wide variety of subjects captured but also by the different ways in which people approach the task of making photographs. And while this spectrum of creativity appears to have almost as many subtle gradations as there are photographers, the extremities of the spectrum appear to pit constructivism against opportunism.

In my view, Constructivists generally begin with an idea then use their skills and imagination to translate that idea into a visual representation. In its ultimate form, the photographer has absolute control over camera, subject, background, props, lighting etc. Much of commercial photography falls into this category, including fashion and advertising work. Formal portraits are often taken this way. Still life is essentially a constructed form, although it can be opportunistic. And artists who use textures to enhance their work are drawing on constructivist techniques, even if the primary subject was acquired opportunistically. But I see no absolute correlation between genre and this approach.

Opportunism, on the other hand, is the word I use to describe the method of capturing, without premeditation and without contrivance, what happens naturally in the world. Photographers using this method can increase their chances of finding suitable subjects by choosing to visit locations where those subjects are more likely to occur. But the essential difference between the constructivists and the opportunists is that the former will plan the shot they want, sometimes meticulously; whereas the opportunists will react to an opportunity that presents itself spontaneously.  Sports photography is a good example of opportunism in that the photographer goes along to the sporting event hoping to get some good shots and will take up a position that he feels will increase his chances and yield the best results; but he has no control over what transpires on the field of play and when the opportunity arises, he must be ready to react to it. Similarly, nature photography and travel photography rely heavily on the photographer reacting to rather than controlling the environment. Street photographers, as I see it, fall into two sub-categories. There are those who interact with the street, provoking a response; and there are those who operate as unseen observers, quietly recording what would be happening even if they weren’t there. For me, the latter are the quintessential opportunists because they pride themselves in photographing what occurs, actually and naturally, in their locus. Either way, street photography is candid. Subjects are not posed.  Some photographers will exercise more control than others over the interpretation of the subject, using in-camera and/or post-processing techniques to realise their vision; but, while the constructivists start with an idea, for the opportunists, the idea is always triggered by the subject.

When I first took an interest in photography, in my late teens, I had an ambition to become a photojournalist. Inspired by the likes of Cartier-Bresson and Capa, I saw myself becoming a modern-day knight-errant, roaming the world with a lens rather than a lance, righting wrongs and championing the oppressed. As such, my approach to photography leaned decidedly towards opportunism. But the channels to photojournalism were already closed to me by then so, to learn the craft of photography, I took a job in a commercial studio, where, to my chagrin, I found myself in a decidedly constructivist environment. And even that degree of creativity was denied me because creative control was generally exercised by the art directors from the advertising agencies. For the most part, they regarded the photographer as merely an artisan who translated their vision into a photographic product.

Whether prejudiced by this experience or just lacking the creative ability to put it into practice, constructivism has always been something I’ve struggled with; and for this reason, I often find that I admire those constructivist photographers who exhibit their work on Flickr. Whether the subject is a subtle floral arrangement with textures or a profound psychodrama, I am amazed by and envious of those who can take their ideas and realise them visually in a way that makes the image look as if it had been happened upon by chance. And for me, this is the key to successful constructivism: that it looks opportunistic.

So, as a primarily opportunistic photographer, I am accustomed to dealing with the vagaries of chance; of being in the right place at the right time and being able to react to that. But since I bought and started to experiment with a Ricoh GRD III camera, I have discovered another dimension to the whole creative spectrum, where chance plays an even more strategic part in the photographic process.

Fortuitism is a word I’ve enlisted to describe an approach in which the photographer, in the process of capturing the image, allows a degree of chance to influence the outcome. To an extent, skill and chance complement each other. For example, the photographer who shoots from the hip skilfully will leave less to chance in terms of framing and composition than one who simply points and hopes for the best. Even though my preference has always been to shoot opportunistically, I have instinctively tried to control how the camera captures the scene by framing the subject in the viewfinder, using a light meter to calculate and control the exposure, using the camera’s focusing mechanism to ensure that the shot is focused the way I want it to be and selecting a shutter speed that will control the effect of the movement of the subject. Thus, the resulting image, if I have set the camera’s controls correctly, will be exactly what I expected it to be: no surprises; no disappointments.

Many of us, however, have had the experience where we have made a mistake when taking a shot and the outcome has actually been better than we had conceived and expected. Maybe a little blur enhances the scene; maybe the shadow of a passer-by intruding into the frame adds drama to the image. These accidents can be serendipitous. After all, when it comes to interpreting a subject, blur can be as effective a tool as sharpness in certain circumstances; motion can be as effective a tool as stillness. Selecting a slow shutter speed and intentionally moving the camera while taking the shot can create a vibrancy that may be more effective than a shot that has been frozen still. And whilst I adhere strongly to the belief that the techniques used in photography should contribute to the overall idea of the image and not simply be used as eye-catching gimmicks, I notice that more and more photographers are making use of non-standard techniques to support their artistic vision.

Today’s cameras, particularly those of the point-and-shoot variety, are wedded to the concept of the perfect photograph, meaning: perfectly exposed, perfectly in focus, perfectly still, questing after the grail of true likeness; and they go to some trouble to help us avoid accidental deviation from this standard. So the photographer who wants to extend the boundaries of his technique to include those effects generally repudiated by traditional notions of photography has to develop skills to control his camera in unorthodox circumstances rather than rely on the capabilities of the camera itself to protect him from making, what the camera considers, mistakes. I’m sure a skilled hip-shooter can refine his technique to the point where the probability of his accurately framing his subject is close to that of the more conventional TTL shooter. After all, practice in any technique leads to greater proficiency. But whilst fortuitism broadens the range of creative possibilities, it also increases the risk of failure. It takes courage to relinquish a degree of control and submit to the vagaries of chance. Yet there is inherent excitement in taking risks; and the rewards, when they come, seem all the greater for their unexpectedness.

For centuries, artists refined the art of literal depiction; i.e. depicting their subjects realistically. They came to understand proportions and perspective and 3-dimensional form. Then, just as photography was gaining popularity and legitimacy as a medium of expression, painters seemed to abandon their quest for realism and began to explore, instead, non-literal forms of depiction. Seurat invented Pointillism. Renoir and those who followed him practised Impressionism. The Cubists purposely distorted their subjects; and the abstractionists abandoned any pretension of literal representation and aimed directly at the subconscious reactions of the viewer.

Photography had inadvertently become the ambassador of realism, despite the efforts of the Surrealists to enlist the medium to further their cause. But in time, even the photographers began to feel stifled by the concept of true likeness and sought relief in images that were more suggestive than declarative. The precision of photography had been supported by the increasingly sophisticated optics and mechanics of the evolving technology (cameras, lenses, film, enlargers and photographic paper) but just as the painters before them had wandered away from the deliberateness of brush and palette knife towards the random unpredictability of dripping and splashing their paint onto canvass, the more adventurous photographers began exploring techniques that must have seemed sacrilegious to the traditionalists among them. Suddenly, images emerged that were indistinct, blurred, heavily grained, out-of-focus, shot at oblique angles with shades of dark melting into each other and often including barely identifiable fragments of elements that seemed to have wandered into the frame by accident. More nightmarish than of the real world, the new photography broke all the rules and conventions in its attempts to speak directly to the subconscious of the viewer.  It seemed as though the avant-garde were actually trying to recreate the primitive attempts of the first photographers. But that was not the case at all. Whereas the pioneers were constrained by the limitations of the technology available to them, the avant-garde photographers, like their painter cousins, were making choices. When Jackson Pollock dripped paint on a canvas or Yves Klein splashed paint on a naked woman and dragged her across a sheet of paper laid out on the floor, they were not aiming for accuracy but for spontaneity, fluidity, and an effect that was unpredictably organic just as life itself, on several different levels, is the product of both planning and chance.

The drippers and splashers of the art world deliberately charted a path between control and chance to achieve their objectives. Their techniques were not completely random, for there is still a high degree of skill involved in placing the paint where the artist wants it to go; and their photographer cousins began taking a similar approach. Results that might have been attributed to a lack of skill in previous generations were suddenly being recognised as the product of new skills, equal to any possessed by conventional photographers. Anyone can take a photograph that is out of focus; but to take an out-of-focus photograph that captures the essence of a subject more powerfully than a faithful replication requires the vision to see beyond the obvious and the skill to translate that vision into a communicable form.

Photography will always have a documentary role to play; but some photographers increasingly strive to document not just what we see but also what we feel. And since our feelings are complex and transient, the vocabulary of photography has to be extended beyond that which was sufficient to simply record a moment of reality frozen in time. The new photography seeks to resonate with a world that is in motion and in flux. It may contain elements of construction and/or opportunism but it strives also to reflect the unpredictable spontaneity of a reality that unfolds chaotically, despite Man’s attempts to control it. The world is not perfect; and to make it appear thus, ironically, contradicts the conventional view of the art form; that which contends that the camera doesn’t lie.

In trying to master my Ricoh I have pushed it to do things that I would never have tried with my Nikon DLSR; but this has opened my mind to new possibilities and new ways of thinking about photography; and to recognise these ways in the work of others and thereby better understand what they are seeking to achieve. As I wrote in my earlier essay Out of my comfort zone, the safety and security of TTL framing and composition practised over many years is not easy for me to abandon; and the initial disappointment at my failed early attempts with the Ricoh was discouraging. But it also made me think critically about what I was doing instead of just going out and applying the same old photographic formulae, again and again. And every now and then, I’d take a shot which (to me, at least) seemed better than anything I might have captured using conventional techniques; had more vitality and fleetingness than the shots I normally produced; and I’d wonder to myself: what is the truer reflection of reality: the carefully framed and composed photograph that conforms to a conventional view of the world; or the chaotically flawed representation of a world that is, in fact, chaotically flawed? There was a time when I would have unequivocally supported the former argument; but now I wonder if careful framing and composition are not simply another form of constructivism; an attempt to idealise the world by making it seem more balanced and organised than it really is.

For me then, the photographic challenge at the moment lies in finding the line between art and reality; and by ‘art’ I mean representing the world in the way that acknowledges certain stylistic conventions. Lean too far towards art and even opportunistic shots risk looking constructed and contrived; lean too far the other way, capturing scrupulously what exists in front of the camera, and one is creating a photocopy of reality; a document that relies on the subject itself to be intrinsically interesting. Allowing chance to play a part in the creation of an image may deliver a spontaneity that brings the image to life; but where photographers abandon themselves too much to chance, I am reminded of the probability theorem which states that a monkey at a typewriter, hitting keys at random for an infinite amount of time, will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare; and I wonder if my theory of fortuitism has a similarly simian dimension. Is the photographer who clicks randomly at everything and occasionally produces a frame of outstanding quality really a photographer; or just a monkey with a camera? I have to admit that relinquishment of total control in favour of a degree of chance has made me uncomfortable on more than one occasion; and while I might be excited by what I have produced, I feel somewhat guilty about claiming authorship of it. But in the final analysis, the question of whether Hamlet was written deliberately, by Shakespeare, or fortuitously, by a macaque with an iMac is not, I believe, the critical issue. What matters first is that it was written at all; and second, that it was recognised and preserved as a work of art. The modern painters who abandoned the brush for less controllable techniques did so knowingly, with clear objectives in mind; and in trading one quality for another, they believed that they were able to produce work which better expressed the message they were trying to convey. Of course, it is more difficult for the rest of us now to distinguish between the work of an artist with vision and skill, and that of a charlatan who emulates his technique blindly, without understanding and sensibility, creating what only resembles the work of the innovator but lacks its integrity and soul. Yet, that is no justification for denouncing the true artist. We simply have to learn how to tell the diamond from the rhinestone.

***

The photograph I have used to introduce this piece was taken at an outdoor New Year’s Eve party in December 2009.

Disclaimer

4 thoughts on “14. Shoot first…

  1. One of my friends bought a point-and-shoot digital camera for her three-year-old grandson, and when he started turning out photographs that seemed to me more interesting than mine, I put my camera aside. I’m still waiting to pick it up again, and I’m still preoccupied by the very questions you ask. Thanks for asking them in public. I have no answers, but I agree with your questions.

  2. I like your preamble, of contructivism contrasted with opportunism, and like you, find that I have been predominantly an opportunist. I’ve also seen it asked of photographers whether one is a farmer (constructivist) or a hunter (opportunist). I’m more a vulture (lazy opportunist).

    Fortuitism can be applied both to constructivism and opportunism, and seems to also have some subsets. There has been an explosion in popularity of ‘leaky light’ film cameras such as the holga and the diana, that allow random occurrence to enter the equation. And now there are mobile phone camera apps that mimic those cameras. I like many of the images captured with these, but I have some reservations regarding allowing so much control over the image to be left to the device. I would like to be able to choose some parameters of the focus/exposure and then let only some other parameters fall to chance. Sort of a ‘guided’ fortuitism if you will.

    Can we abandon our processes too much to chance? Sure. But it’s the choice of the individual. As a lazy opportunist, I try to capture what I come across with as much skill as I can muster. And like a mutation in the gene pool, there are serendipitous accidents in those captures. The flash doesn’t fire. The white balance is wrong. Someone walks into frame. And there are semi-planned departures from the norm, deliberately defocusing, deliberately moving the camera, twisting the zoom.

    I think how we then approach that captured image determines whether we let it be the macaque at the keyboard or whether we then exercise artistic control.

    • John, I think I can distill my personal view down to two points:
      a) experimentation in photography is part of the learning process. There are no rules. Try anything and everything, just to see what happens. Sometimes an experiment will produce a great shot and there is no need to denigrate that shot just because it happened accidentally. Art is art. It justifies itself.
      b) experimentation leads to new skills and new tools that one can use in expressing one’s ideas photographically. Once mastered, these tools can be deployed intentionally, artfully, even if they still look like they have happened accidentally. I’ve always believed that the techniques used in making an image should support the intrinsic message of the image, rather than BE the message in their own right. But that’s just my opinion; and everyone has a right to his or her own opinion.

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