For my photographer friends, I’d like to share my thoughts and experience of How I See photographs. I find that when I carry a camera bag, I am actually “looking” for photographs. My mind seems to be running a different program than when I am out picking up my dry cleaning. When I am “looking,” then I see. Rarely does it work the other way, I don’t see when I am not looking. What does that mean? Why don’t I see when I may be standing in front of the perfect image? I think it’s because of my mindset. When I carry a camera, and I have set out to deliberately make photographs, I move into the present moment. Yes, that elusive place called NOW. I am not thinking about the past, the future or really anything else, I am focused on being with myself in the now.
I am scanning and then evaluating everything I see for a potentially interesting image. I am pattern matching and discarding potentially thousands of ideas, mostly unconscious to the process. I am turning off my thinking and allowing my feelings to guide me as I scan the surroundings to see. But what am I looking for? It’s what I have seen in the past that I think I have selected as a “great” photograph, and then trying to understand why I thought that, what made it great and how I might make a great photograph myself.
This all starts with SEEING the photographs of others. From the time I became fascinated with the process of taking pictures, I had the desire to see how others did it too. Initially, I made images that looked like others I had seen.
I studied under John Sexton, famed assistant to Ansel Adams for many years. John led a trip to the Southwest with Ray McSaveney where we spent three entire days looking at their photographs. Now you might think that we came to tour the Southwest with our cameras to take photos, we did, but that “grounding” of vision turned an ordinary photography trip into something much different; it became a transmission of sorts – of vision from those contemporary masters to us. After seeing John’s work, we visited the Antelope Canyons, and I made the above photo. The image that inspired me to make the photo above is this photograph made by John.
Being a Copy Cat
Once, I exhibited work where the person reviewing the work asked me if I had studied with John Sexton, that’s how derivative my images had become. I felt ashamed, I felt like a cheater. I felt like a fraud. But I was wrong, I was exactly where I was supposed to be, I was in that stage of copying the work of the masters, which is what almost every artist does when learning. It’s only when you fully integrate the rules can you discard them and even break them.
With a good mentor, you accomplish the goal of being able to duplicate easily, as a concert pianist would play Chopin. Do we accuse the concert pianist of copying? It was his job to copy and interpret the music of masters as their own. When Ansel Adams died, he left his negatives to The University of Arizona where he had cofounded the Center for Creative Photography.
To this day, select students are permitted to play Ansel’s music; to print the very negatives that Ansel Adams exposed in his camera, as a learning experience for young photographers. Why? Because from those negatives, students can create their vision based entirely on what Ansel saw when he clicked the shutter and then interpreted that image in the fine print. But they first must learn to copy the results so they can then interpret for themselves. In doing so, they will unravel the thought process the master himself went through when he was at the moment of creation.
All photographers should copy, that’s how learning takes place. We all see images we wish we shot, we all work on learning the techniques of our contemporary masters, we buy their courses – because we want to learn. We master copying; we practice what we learn, and we will someday duplicate the effect our teachers get when they interpret their own visual landscape.
The Imprint of Experience
From the moment I saw Ansel Adams Clearing Winter Storm, I realized that I wanted to make fine art black and white images. I made that decision in 1986 and then decided to seek out the contemporary masters of our time and mentor with them. The first person I chose was Ansel, but he had stopped leading workshops by then, and I became aware of John Sexton and his role as Ansel’s assistant. That’s when I contact John and made arrangements to work with him live, during the southwest workshop I mentioned above. John showed me what was possible with a well-crafted black and white negative and the vision to place the camera in unusual places. I wanted more, but John was not doing many workshops, and I was thirsty to learn more. Then I was introduced to Howard Bond.
I had become aware of his work through his articles in Photo Technique Magazine, which catered to the art of black and white photography. I read every issue and in particular, I studied Howard’s articles. I discovered that Howard ran workshops in the basement of his modest Ann Arbor home, and I signed up for the first one available. I went back several times to work with Howard over the years, eventually traveling with Howard to places like the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and several other trips.
It was in one of those workshops that I heard about Ron Rosenstock. I looked him up and discovered he lived only 35 miles from my home. I contacted Ron, and we visited over Chinese food after visiting his tiny 2nd-floor gallery. When looking at Ron’s prints, I realized that Ron had that elusive vision I so desperately wanted to develop. Ron worked with Minor White as a student at MIT in the early 70’s when Minor was still teaching. Ron saw in Minor what I saw in Ron; he thirsted for a way to tap into his vision of the world more directly, as Minor had demonstrated over the years.
I knew that I wanted to work with Ron, so I promptly signed up for his Ireland Workshop, which he still runs to this day. That was in 1988, and I still travel with Ron to exotic places. It’s now 28 years that Ron and I have been traveling together, we’ve been all over the world, and we are not done yet. We don’t use our view cameras anymore; we use digital cameras. We learned long ago that it’s not the camera that takes the photo, it’s the photographer! Ron adapted quickly as the technology changed.
So here I am today in February of 2016, 38 years later, still pushing myself to manifest what I feel when an epic landscape inspires me, so I can express that in my photography. That moment behind the camera makes the image come to life for me, but only when I am actually present, and that’s what I strive to accomplish every time I click the shutter.
Is my photography different than it was 10, 20, even 30 years ago? I think so. My tools have changed, but my quest has not. My vision may have matured, I’ve seen many more examples of incredible work and I’ve made some images I am very proud of, yet I know I am not done. I never will be until the breath is gone completely from my body. But until then, I will continue to be in the now, with my camera and place myself at epic locations where I can actually and completely express the joy of life at the pinnacle of my experience!
Only a photographer (or my mom) would have read this far, so let me leave you with something that has taken me a long time to learn. Stop comparing yourself (or your photographs) to others, instead, compare yourself to the “you” of yesterday. My only real quest as a human being is to be better at living than I was yesterday. The only way I measure that is by comparing myself now, to the “me” of before. That’s how I see my progress; that’s how I know I am growing, and that keeps me on the path I am on today. To Evolve.
The Photographs on This Post
All the photos on this post were shot with my Wisner Large Technical Field Camera with Nikon or Schneider lenses ranging from 90mm (wide angle) to 300 mm (moderate telephoto) on Kodak Tmax 100 ReadyLoad film. Sadly, neither that camera or film are available today from their original manufacturers. Every negative was lovingly processed by me in my home darkroom and printed on my Saunders-Omega LPL 4550 XLG 4×5 Black and White Diffusion Enlarger, which is still sold by B&H to this day. I printed every photograph on this page on Ilford MultiGrade FB (and then digitally scanned professionally) using the hard won skills developed over 20 years in the darkroom, having spent several thousand glorious hours perfecting my craft. I hope you enjoyed this post, it’s different than everything else I’ve written, and it was inspired by my need to understand the way I see and what has inspired me over the years, I hope it’s inspired you too.
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