06. Photographic Vision

Running on empty

In a previous article, I mentioned what I believe are the three essential ingredients for successful street photography:

  1. Luck: being in the right place at the right time;
  2. Vision: recognising that you are in the right place at the right time; and
  3. Skill: to convert your vision into an image others can share.

Of these three, I believe that vision is the most critical. Luck, you cannot control (although you can sometimes improve the odds). Skill is something you can develop, provided that you have some natural talent to begin with. But vision, in my opinion, is what separates the photographer from everyone else who enjoys the gift of sight; and that is why I want to explore it a little further here.

Vision can be further subdivided into two components. The first is that recognition that enables the photographer to isolate, out of the myriad of elements that pass before his or her gaze at any moment, those that combine to make an interesting or engaging image. It might be one face in a sea of faces; a shadow, a silhouette or a reflection, or the way the light strikes a subject. Whatever it is, in the photographer’s vision it stands out, begging to be captured.

The other component of vision is what I’ll call interpretation. In some cases, the photographer will choose to report what he or she sees faithfully, reportage style. But there will be times when a literal interpretation does not convey the feeling the photographer had at the moment of recognition. The most common form of interpretation is reduction to greyscale; but depending on the subject, and the photographer’s own preferences, there are many techniques that can be employed to stamp his or her interpretation on the image, including: motion blur, the use of depth of field (DoF), silhouette, high-key, low-key, grain, etc. Where the actual eye may see lights, for example, the eye in the mind of the photographer may see bokeh. In the best photographs, this is not an accident caused by the limitations of the camera lens. This is what the photographer wants us to see; this is his or her vision.

In the Zone

I’m sure that every photographer, at one time or another, has experienced the exhilaration of recognising the potential of a scene, where interpretative intuition takes over, surpassing one’s self-consciousness, concentrating one’s attention, eliminating all other thoughts and compelling you to capture the image. And there are occasions, it seems, when every time you turn around, there is another image before you, just begging to be captured.

This feeling of ecstasy is akin to the trance-like state of the Voodoo priest or the whirling Dervish or the Zen monk in deepest contemplation. Sportsmen and women describe this feeling as being “in the zone”; when they always seem to be in the right place at the right time and every move they attempt is executed perfectly. Jazz musicians talk about it in terms of their Mojo. When your Mojo is working, your improvisations soar with unprecedented invention and emotion. For me, as an amateur photographer, there is no greater high than seeing image after image appear before my eyes, just begging me to capture it. But then, there are times when my Mojo just isn’t working and the potential images lie hidden from me in the complexity of the visual world, lost in the confusion, like Waldo.

Why is it that the Mojo comes and goes like this? In my own case, and I’d love to hear what others have to say on the subject, I believe that it has a great deal to do with self-confidence; the knowledge that you have done it before and the certainty that you can do it again. But confidence is like a spiral staircase: you can go up; but you can also go down.  You have a lean day and your confidence is challenged so that the next time you go out to shoot, you’re expectations are lower but your need to re-establish your confidence is greater. Your natural reaction is to try harder. But trying harder is usually counter-productive in this situation. The better strategy is to relax and allow your experience and skill to exercise their power; but all your life you have been conditioned to try harder, so that is what you do; and the trying, the desire to get your Mojo back, the desperation you feel as time passes and inspiration evades you, all become a distraction standing between you and what you hope to achieve. Instead of allowing your photographer’s eye to freely scan your field of vision, you put pressure on it seek and find that illusive scene, that Pulitzer Prize-winning image; and each moment of failure to do so adds to your self-doubt and the pressure you are putting yourself under. And what makes it worse is that you know that the images are out there; it’s just that you can’t see them.

During the first few months after I stared using Flickr seriously, I felt that I was on an upward spiral. I felt that my photography was improving overall as a result of the inspiration and ideas I gleaned from viewing the work of other photographers on Flickr; and also through the feedback I received on my own uploads. Then three things happened to me that seemed to change my momentum, change my direction, and started me spiralling down, causing me to doubt myself photographically, to the point where I did not go out shooting for three months.

The first of these events was the brush with the security guard that I wrote about in a piece, published here earlier, entitled Street Ethics. While the incident itself was trivial, it caused me to think about what I was doing in a moral and ethical context. In writing about it, I tried to resolve the inner conflicts it had created; but while, on an intellectual level, I could argue a strong case in support of street photography, emotionally, I was still uncertain. A curtain of inhibition had descended between the world and me and I felt uncomfortable pointing a camera at strangers on the street.

The second event came about when I submitted one of my photographs for admission to a newly established Flickr group. On reading their initial manifesto, it seemed they were going to set a benchmark for quality street photography; and therefore, acceptance into their group would be a confirmation of my standing. Already, some of the photographers whose work I greatly admired were contributors and I had hoped to join them, to become part of their pantheon. The image I submitted was the one I had always regarded as my best and while I do find it difficult to judge my own work objectively, reaction to it when I uploaded it to Flickr suggested that my appraisal was close to the mark. It wasn’t a spectacular or dynamic image, I have to admit; but it portrayed, successfully I felt, a fundamental aspect of human existence where an individual, in the latter stages of his life, reflects on the comparison between his youthful expectations and the reality of where his life has taken him. I felt that it was a timeless image, in the true spirit of street photography. But clearly the Administrators of the group did not see it that way. Rejected without explanation, I can only assume that it was judged to be unworthy; and the experience left me with the feeling that, if my best is not good enough, what is the point of going on.

But we all go through ups and downs in our lives, sometimes far more serious and consequential than this; and for the most part we weather the storm and emerge stronger and more confident than before. Key to this resilience is one’s personal support group; the people who provide us with encouragement when we most need it; who put our seemingly monumental setbacks into a more realistic perspective and give us the strength we need to overcome them. For photography, my support “group” comprised the one person in my circle who showed an interest in what I was doing[1]. But the third thing that happened was that she became seriously ill and had to be admitted to hospital. After two weeks, just when it looked like she had recovered and might be discharged, the call came early one morning to tell me that she had passed away.

From the day that my mother was admitted to hospital, I stopped going out to take photographs. At first, I told myself that it was because I had too much to do: visiting her every day, then making funeral arrangements; then dealing with solicitors in relation to her estate. But eventually, I had to admit that it was because I had lost my motivation to go out shooting.

I’m sure that none of these events, individually, would have derailed my enthusiasm for photography to this extent; but collectively, they damaged my spirit. I tried to fight back by continuing to upload images (to Flickr) from my existing stock; but I felt as though I was running on empty; not really engaged with what I was doing. My final hope lay in the vacation we had planned once our son finished his final school exams. Perhaps a change of scenery, a change of routine and new experiences would jolt me out of my despondency and restore my appetite for photography.


[1] I have had tremendous support from Flickr friends, which I value very highly; but there are times when you need face-to-face contact with someone; and in my case, there was only one person who was always willing to give me her support.

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4 thoughts on “06. Photographic Vision

  1. I am so touched, you reveal yourself so unguarded and touch upon issues to profound and important to us all. Why is it we lose our enthusisam and how to go on despite it all. You express yourself so elogquently, no matter, don’t stop, keep on writing and photographing, no matter the mood! Now I will have to find out how your travels affected you your musings and revelations are just so compelling.

  2. What a great piece, Keith.

    I fully enjoyed reading what you had to say here. You really hit the nail on the head re many things and I would guess that every Street photographer would get a sense of nostalgia sizzling through their veins when reading your definition of Street photography and what it means to those who have the bug.

    What I particularly like about this piece of text is that you sound so positive. We have been in communication for some time now and leading up to your recent vacation you had really lost your desire to go out shooting (as stated here) but I sense a great turnaround in your outlook here.

    It’s great to see you back and I hope that both you and your family had a wonderful time.

    Best wishes …

    Tommy

  3. This brings back the emotions I went through when my mother had been admitted after a myocardial infarction. She also had come along well, and had been sent to the regular floor from CCU. That Saturday she was in good spirits and had much more energy. We helped her walk around her room. That evening we received the call that she had passed on.

    This was a decade ago. I still vividly remember holding her hand there in the hospital that day, thinking the corner had been turned, and that she’d be able to see her grandchildren grow for a bit longer.

    My older son, 11 at the time, accompanied me to the hospital that evening after the call came. He was a bit alarmed at first when I used an allen key to open the hospital window, but was reassured when I explained that her spirit needed a way out. We were able to say our goodbyes.

    Sorry to be rambling on, and thank you for having this blog.

  4. Another beautiful piece, Keith. I always feel like you manage to put in words what I feel many times but personally fail to recognise, and for this I am grateful to you!

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