Archive for category Film
This is a sermon, so feel free to mutter an occasional amen or shout a hallelujah. And like any congregation of believers, you probably already know some of the things I’m going to say. But we are here to reinvigorate our faith, so please be seated while I take the pulpit, thump the mic and clear my throat.
You are living in the best time in history to be a photojournalist.
It may not seem like it considering the ever-present industry bad news. (Yeah, I just heard you mutter, “this guy is nuts.”) Old media is in trouble. New media is thrashing around for an economic model for news. Dayrates have been stagnant for a decade. Rights are being grabbed. Amateurs with cell phones are covering breaking news. Journalism jobs are going away. And this week Eastman Kodak slid closer to bankruptcy. But Horace Greeley, a 19th-century journalist and inveterate forward thinker once wrote, “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”
So what makes now so great?
To start, you have an enormous array of tool choices. For a recent New York Times shoot I eagerly packed in my bag a vintage-1948 press camera, a medium-format TLR and a DSLR. I used all three on the shoot, swapping sheet-film holders, cranking 120 through a Rolleiflex and twitching images through the pixel array of the little high-tech wonder alongside them.
We are now deep enough into the digital age that the quality of that equipment has reached heights we could have only imagined a few years ago. And with the recent and expected announcements of new gear from the big digital players, we are in for astounding advancements this year.
But we also have the entire world of film cameras to use, with all those delicious differences in look, point of view, depth of field and other things that make various cameras see the world differently. As Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, recently told NPR,“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Today we can still use pretty much all of the photographic technology ever invented.
Yes, you can buy color transparency films in 620 and 127 sizes (hand-cut and rolled by a few dedicated souls) and new single-use, screw-base flash bulbs (from Ireland), if you’re willing to pay the price. Online you can buy kits to make cyanotypes, argyrotypes and kallitypes. You can buy the chemicals to mix any developer formula concocted or to embrace the silvery glow of a daguerreotype. “Everything that we have made in the past,” said Kelly, “is still being made somewhere in the world today.” And it is available to us thanks to the reach of the very same Internet that has upended our old business models.
In some areas there is even expansion. More black and white films are available now than there were in 1990. With their manufacturers out from under iron curtains or no longer forced to compete for shelf space with the big three film makers, more than a dozen brands of monochrome film are readily available. Some have been made in Eastern and Central Europe for decades.
My favorite leisure camera of the moment is a folding Kodak/Nagel Vollenda 48 from the 1930s. It takes 127 film (thank you, Croatia) and gives everything at which it is aimed the feel of the decade in which the camera was made. It took the place of a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. I love all of that variety. Sure, about all of it can be modeled with good digital technique, but art is in the process, not just the product.
And the latest round of digital technology has brought us fantastic ISO capability that will probably reach a usable six digits before we can say “existing light in a coal mine.” We now have rich color even on the extremes of exposure and more dynamic range than I could have dreamed a decade ago. Remember all those color correction filters we used to have to carry around just to get accurate color? Now they’re a button and knob on the camera or two sliders in your raw conversion software. Soon enough we may see professional light-field cameras that allow focus correction in post-production.
In an advancement that would make filmmaker/photographers like Robert Frank, William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Tim Hetherington jealous, we now have HD video available in our camera bodies with a sensor twice the size of high-end cinema film. The once high cost of entry into documentary film production has just dropped faster than one of Herman Cain‘s shoes.
The learning curve has become impossibly short as we can experiment furiously and see the result immediately. The digital age also means unprecedented speed of delivery. In the decade some have called the heyday of photojournalism — the 1980s — to get an image from a revolution in Iran meant sweet-talking a diplomat or a traveler into carrying your film on a flight from Tehran to Paris or New York. It was days from event to publication. Now with a satellite phone and a tablet computer a photojournalist can publish from Libya a split second after the image is made.
Combine the incredible power of digital photography with the variety of analog and you can do anything.
But what about that business model? Indeed the methods we’ve used for a century to make a living seem to be going away. They’re not dead yet, though, and that gives us time to transition and reinvent how photojournalists live on their good work. Almost a century ago a few business-minded photographers and a few German magazine editors created the freelance model we’ve used so far. They created that out of a vacuum that we don’t face.
Pieces of the solution for an economic puzzle are popping up all the time. In my 25-year career I’ve spent haystacks of money chasing personal projects that at best have returned break-even cash. We are driven to document whether we have a patron or not, and in the past that was just one of the costs of doing business. But now thanks to the Internet-made idea of crowdfunding a good project can have hundreds of patrons who may not only cover the cost of field production but also provide a little financial breathing room. Pay close attention to Emphas.is, Kisckstarter and IndieGoGo to see where that leads. Watch how photographers, agencies and collectives like LUCEO Images repurpose work for alternative venues and media, and then both make money and market themselves in the process. Frankly, you have it much easier than Jacob Riis did.
Keep your eyes on other media for answers as well. For example the music industry is in the grips of an economic chaos that looks remarkably like what the news media has been facing — loss of markets, lack of control over the means of distribution, ease of amateur production and distribution, and the free and open spreading of their product. Out of that, musician and entrepreneur Trent Reznor has figured out how to make piles of money from giving away most of his music. It’s the Nine-Inch Nail meets the Long Tail.
When in 1888 George Eastman put the first point-and-shoot camera into the hands of the public, professional photographers across the land surely panicked about the loss of their businesses. But that and its cheap offspring, the Brownie camera, helped launch a century of stunning photography. Why should we be afraid of all the dilettantes? As photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”
So here’s the most important fact to remember: Rather than killing the professional photographer, early 20th-century advancements allowed professionals to reinvent the art itself. In 1914 Oskar Barnack put some cine film in a new little camera he crafted in his workshop and the age of 35mm photography was born. Innovators like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Eisenstaedt were more than great photographers. They were revolutionaries who picked up surprising new “amateur” equipment, filled it with fast new films and revolutionized the way we see the world.
This is that moment all over again, where new and innovative technology in brilliant hands will change the paradigm. Like me you’ve daydreamed about shooting alongside the likes of those guys in the last paragraph and helping to redefine what photojournalism would be for a century. But this is your time, and you have the opportunity to upend everything just like they did.
Seize it. Foment revolution. Change the history of our art and our profession.
Why does photojournalism addict us and make us want so badly to do this even though there are better ways to make more money?
The answer struck me when reading this recent book by Jane McGonigal. In Reality is Broken she describes the four defining traits that make a game a game. They are a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation.
McGonigal’s book is about far more than this (see her TED talk here), but reading that fired the Sylvania Press 50 flash bulb over my head. These qualities of a game engage us, tug us along in pursuit of the goal, challenge us to do it within the rules and then reward us when we’re done. That is all exactly what photojournalism has done for me (artistic expression and “doing good works” aside).
So what is our goal? We work to make an image that tells a story. That’s the simple goal. We could also extrapolate that to other grand journalistic goals like informing a democracy or bringing positive change to the world.
The rules? This is where I think photojournalism differs from any other kind of photography: We must do this within the ethical boundaries and best practices of our profession. We make images of reality unfolding — no alterations before or after the image is captured. The story must be grounded in facts (or truth, whichever term you prefer) and not deceive the reader. We also work to not misrepresent the subject. Their story must be told truthfully, no matter how flattering or unflattering that ends up being. That’s a pretty tight set of rules.
Feedback? We grasp our progress through a variety of means. First, we see the images we make and feel satisfied or dissatisfied with our performance. The digital age has sped this up enormously as we now see the result seconds later with a quick “chimp” of the image on the camera’s screen. Feedback increases when our editors use our images, our readers respond to them and awards judges honor them. The progression from shooting to Pulitzer medal tugs us ever forward.
We do all this voluntarily, as there are better ways to make more money, and more secure — even safer — professions available to us.
McGonigal also argues that the games make us happier. When we are fully engaged with a video game in particular we are inspired to play at the very top of our skill level. That can happen with a simpler game too, but video games are designed to keep pushing us further to better performance. When we reach that point we achieve what she and other researchers describe as “flow.” This term was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (cq that in a caption…) who described it in a book by the same title as, “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning.” In a Wired interview, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
I’ve been there as a photojournalist, when a fleeting moment magically erupts perfectly in front of me and I get it in a split second, when the subtleties of a story are unfolding for my camera, when I hit the focus on a sudden game-ending double play. I get it mostly when I am feeling happily challenged, or when I am reporting a story that may ripple through society. I feel it when I am working on the very edge of my skill level. And that, McGonigal says, is what a good game inspires you to do.
Also like the play in many well-designed modern video games where moral complexity is one of the features of the game, our work has nuance. Part of what drives us is that sense of social concern and the deep involvement with moral implications of our work. In order to advance and earn the feedback of the powerful image or the holy-grail “social change,” we must maneuver through thickets of complexity. Some might “score” most easily by being aggressive shooters, marching into a sensitive scene with cameras blazing. I’ve seen this more often than I like — a camera shooter inches from the nose of the bereaved victim scoring points with the illusion of intimacy. But the vast majority of us know that sincere intimacy ultimately wins for all involved. To earn those images we tread delicately and wisely, and earn our access to the story.
McGonigal argues that reality needs to be restructured to be more “gameful” and to keep us in a state of flow in places where we often are not — like when solving social or environmental ills or even while at work. I argue that photojournalism is one of the possibly few professions (bond trader might be another) where there are inherent gameful conditions that inspire flow. But perhaps we work in something more like a board game, where it is as much up to us to keep our flow as it is to the design of the game.
How do we do that? It’s probably different circumstances for each of us. And the lack of flow or engagement might be what we’ve long called “a slump.” I’ve had great editors who can inspire flow by encouraging the thinking and analysis that leads to great work. I’ve also had terrible editors who can crush flow in a single sentence. McGonigal writes at length at how game-world ideas can work in reality to inspire flow and the happiness and productivity it can bring. But one of the keys comes from another simple definition by philosopher Bernard Suits who said, “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
His point was that a game is about the rules and obstacles. Though it would be simplest to pick up the golf ball and carry it down the fairway to drop it in the hole, that game is less fun and ends too quickly. It’s a walk in a park with a lame purpose. Golf works because of its difficult unnecessary obstacles. In photojournalism we have a host of obstacles most of us would declare very necessary. But some are not.
A classic example of unnecessary obstacles was Jim Brandenburg’s Chased by the Light project where he made only one frame a day for 90 days. Few of us can imagine the self-inflicted pressure of deciding when in that 24-hour period to make a single shutter click. Is the exposure right? Is it in focus? Is this that moment? And yet most, if not all, of those single images are better than the portfolio work of the rest of the working nature photographers out there.
Technology has removed many of the obstacles that prior generations faced — making sports pictures with a press camera or twin-lens reflex for example. Making a usable image has never been easier. That’s great for me when the obstacles to getting the story-telling image come from the story itself. When photographing an emotionally intense scene, an unfolding crime, a fast-action sport or when needing to be stealthy fast, I appreciate equipment that is as invisible to me as possible. I have flow from the story already and don’t want the obstacles of difficult gear.
But not all stories are like that. When I am photographing something that doesn’t require those easy-to-use modern cameras, I find myself wishing I were making that image with my infinitely slower, much more obstacle-rich old press camera or my beloved Rolleiflex with its 12-shot roll, backward screen image and strange viewing angle. When the story is too easy, I crave mechanical obstacles. I want to feel like I am playing at the top of my skills.
The better way, most certainly, would be to find how that story can go farther, how I can go deeper into it and work at the top of my mental skills without the artificial obstacles of a leaf shutter or sheet film. But often for me, happiness comes from having the very unnecessary obstacles of quirky old gear, or the circumstantial obstacle of a foreign language, or artificial limit of one camera and one prime lens.
There is a great risk of semantic misunderstanding by describing our profession as gameful, to use McGonigal’s term. I would be cautious to describe it as a game because of how we too often see games as meaningless pursuits and time not productively spent. Photojournalism is a serious profession that enters the lives of people at both their best and their worst moments. To imagine a journalist as out to score points is both inaccurate and offensive. McGonigal does not argue we should make reality less serious. She argues that we should take what makes games work so well and apply that to reality.
Though photojournalism is not a game in terms of what that label may imply, it is certainly gameful. Perhaps that’s why we love it so much. And understanding those gameful characteristics may be a valuable way to keep ourselves engaged with our profession, out of slumps and working at the top of our skills.
As I sit and type this gently on the elegant and thin modern keyboard of my computer, I find myself wishing for the catharsis of a mechanical typewriter.
Behind me, on the other end of my office, is my grandfather’s 1923 Underwood upright. As a kid I pounded on it until all the keys bunched up in a wad. I rolled the platen. I rang the little end-of-line bell.
I love computers and digital technology. I am fascinated by the powerful communication tools offered by the 21st century. But nothing beats a cool mechanical device. The sensuality adds to the creative process.
Writing on that machine — a few high school papers when my father wouldn’t let me on his IBM Correcting Selectric — was a physical endeavor with all the rewards of exercise. You swing fingers into the long throw of the keys, controlling the strength of a word through how hard you pounded the letters. The emotion of a word or line exploded into the act of typing.
Each line musically ended with a sweet ding and a gratifying swipe at the carriage return lever. Through the process your mind needed to stay three steps ahead of your fingers, plotting each word and paragraph in advance to avoid a retype of at least a page. When that page was done, you could melodramatically grab the paper and yank it out of the platen with a satisfying and final buzz of the ratchet.
Just over a year ago I pulled out the small portable Smith-Corona my father used in college. I thought my seven-year-old guests would be happily occupied banging on the keys and tangling the font the way I did. “Is this an old computer?” Zoe asked with a gasp of fascination.
In photography I get the same pleasure from pulling a dark slide out from in front of a fat sheet of film, or from cranking a film roll into a Rolleiflex, or from cocking the shutter of an old Flash-Supermatic leaf shutter. I listen to the soft trip of a Leica M3 at 1/60 second and savor the polished roll of the advance lever mechanics. The sense of beginning in those actions is so much more palpable than in the slip of a memory card into a slot and the tinny ping of a DSLR.
In a darkroom I still relish the feel of a roll winding onto the stainless-steel reels, the sour smell of the hypo, the suds of the Photoflo. Watching an image appear as I tip the corner of an amber-lit tray takes me instantly back to age 15, a basement darkroom, and the excitement of discovery.
But I am not a Luddite. I am a master’s student in Digital Media Studies at the University of Denver as well as a working digital photojournalist and photojournalism teacher. I find sensuality in the visual and aural output of the digital age and the elegance of its engineering. But that’s another post.
My message is only this: Remember to embrace the process of your work and find joy in it the way you find it in your images. As le maitre Henri Cartier-Bresson excitedly giggled and growled:
“For me it’s a physical pleasure, photography. It doesn’t take many brains. It doesn’t take any brains. It takes sensitivity, a finger and two legs. But it is beautiful when you feel that your body is working or, like this, full of air… And in contact with nature… It’s beautiful!… Pow… Grrrettta… Arrruff! …You see?!”
“May I talk to the Federal Police?” I asked in my best Brazilian Portuguese as the security inspector fondled my film. She nodded to a badge-wearing cop sitting a couple meters away.
“We told this guy the machines won’t hurt film up to ISO 500, but he won’t even let us put the film below that on the belt,” she huffed after he approached.
For most professional photographers who have ever worked overseas, this sounds like a tale from the last century. But it’s not. It was 9/9/09.
I had walked up with fair confidence that the security inspectors at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport would easily hand check my heap of film. I had been through this line a dozen times over the years, without trouble.
I asked the young belt attendant to please hand check the film. She looked at one roll — ISO 100 — and chucked the whole bag on the belt, mumbling something unintelligible to me.
“Por favor, não!” I begged, lunging to grab the film. I’m surprised I wasn’t arrested right then and there.
“I said it won’t hurt anything under 500,” she said, referencing a threshold I had never heard before. Usually they claim 1000. Now I was even more suspicious of her having inaccurate info.
I told her they were a mix, and that the effect is cumulative. She grimaced to a supervisor, who stepped up to look at the film and repeat the 500-ISO line. When she set out to pick all the ISO 100 out of the carefully sorted ziplock bags and send it through the X-ray, I asked for the federal cops.
That can be a risky move. They sit there with the purpose of arresting trouble makers like me. But in the past I had luck on this matter with the Brazilian feds.
As the beefy, head-shaved cop dug through the film, he pulled a few random rolls out of each ziplock. He opened each canister and shoved the spool end into his right nostril and inhaled soundly, apparently sniffing for explosive residue. I hope his nose was clean.
After a half dozen rolls, he handed the bag around the machine. I thanked him directly and sincerely and sighed a bit of relief.
What was I thinking?
By now you’re asking, “What knucklehead would drag film overseas in the age of X-ray-proof digital imaging?” Well that would be me — either an eccentric genius, or a glutton for punishment.
There are many good reasons to haul the digital gear on any assignment that involves flying, and I debated the choice much with myself before leaving.
For example, you can sling a bag of digital gear on an X-ray belt without worry. You can shoot as many frames as can be held by the storage you bring along. You can rest assured you got the frame by seeing it immediately. Newer cameras feature nearly noiseless high ISO, easy white balance correction and better dynamic range than film. You can edit your work as you go and keep track of what you’ve covered. If a war breaks out, or something explodes in front of you, you can file the images immediately.
You’re probably ready to click away from this post feeling confident in your “digitalness.” But here are the concerns I always have:
• It’s easy to carry plenty of storage, and it’s now cheap. But it is relatively fragile. A misstep in computer use, a hard drive crash or an accidental drop can wipe out an entire shoot. Film is somewhat sensitive to X-rays and heat, but as long as you don’t let it get zapped multiple times or leave it sitting on a sunny car seat, you’re fine.
• A laptop is an attractive target of theft. A bag of used film is not.
• A professional digital camera is a conspicuous target of theft. Beat-up-looking film cameras are less so.
• Those digital batteries are expensive, hard to replace and require a charger on fairly stable voltage. Regular and reasonably stable voltage can be a rarity in remote places.
• Those new batteries seem to last forever — a couple thousand frames — but I want security in being able to shoot. I like hauling gear that works on ubiquitous AA batteries and cameras that almost fully function without any batteries at all. Remember Sunny 16, my students? The cameras I hauled on this trip only need batteries to power a light meter. and they last about six months no matter how many frames you shoot.
• Laptops have the same juice needs as above. They weigh about the same as fifty rolls of film, and take about the same amount of space.
How did I work and why?
I took a couple film bodies notorious for their reliability and the quality of their lenses. They are tiny and unobtrusive, quiet and lightning quick. They look just like something from the 1950s to the average person.
I also packed an e-mail-capable cell phone, a decade-old palmtop that runs on a pair of AAs on which to write this.
Admittedly, I have also traveled extensively with digital, and none of the above problems have ever surfaced. Which I choose largely depends on my mood the day I pack, or on how quickly I’ll need to deliver the images.
I took about 50 rolls of film for the week-long shoot. Quick turnaround is not an issue with this story. I’ll have plenty of time to process the film on my return. To get the best quality I’ll have to be deadly accurate with exposure, but that’s fine. I always try to do that anyway.
Yes, film requires money out of pocket at least temporarily, but even in these days of digital if you have a compelling reason for using film, an editor will cover your costs. I had the film already, sitting in my freezer awaiting just such a story as this.
The cost can also be a short-term gain. On the day I’m writing this a new digital body was announced that does almost all of what these old film cameras do. But it would cost $7,000 out of pocket up front. By my calculations it would take 500 or more rolls of film and processing before the prices broke even — or ten of these kinds of shoots. Storage of the film is also cheap (a mangy old file cabinet, and a safe deposit box for the best selects). They’ll be readable by whatever technology is around in 100 years.
If I am truly worried about X-ray damage, I can have the film processed on location to make it zap proof. And if I run low, I can still buy more film nearly anywhere.
In return for the X-ray hassle, I’ll get a distinct look, 25 or more megapixels of resolution, and full frame lens coverage.
I also get the joy of using what is for me the most perfect camera ever made, and that is the most important-to-me reason I made this choice this time. They are comfortable, support the way I see and are a pleasure to use. Though I love the quality of the images from my latest digital camera, I adore working with these simple and direct machines.
Sometimes I get nervous when I can’t chimp (peek at the LCD screen) to know I have that fleeting moment or difficult exposure. For example, on a trip a couple years ago I was assigned to photograph a moonlit dance party in Brazil’s northeast. I wanted some exposures of the full moon above some relatively still bench warmers at the dance. The light was so low that the meter of these cameras would not read it. I licked my index finger stuck it to the wind and guessed f/1.4 at 1 second. I had to wait more than a week to find out I was right on. At the time I wished like crazy I could peek at the images right then and make any needed adjustments.
After the first day, though, I don’t miss chimping. As a matter of fact I chimp less and less on my digital camera all the time. I am confident of my skills, and find that needing faith on the shoot actually makes the shoot less stressful. I also find I work each scene harder to make sure I get it. I don’t shoot, chimp and leave too soon.
So what about those X-rays?
If you’re about to head off on a trip and think I might have excited an itchy advance lever thumb, what should you do?
In the U.S. the X-ray machines are not an issue. Still on the FAA books is a regulation requiring the TSA to hand check your film if you ask. And they do. Not since the week after 9/11 has a U.S. security person argued with me about it.
Overseas your experience will be unpredictable. And as fewer and fewer travelers hop planes with film, the security screeners become less patient with hand checking it.
You’ll find more resistance in countries concerned about terrorism. In Argentina once I was told to put my film on the belt or not get on the plane. On that same trip, though, four other Argentine airports hand checked the film without complaint.
In Paris I once had an assault rifle aimed at me as I was told to put the film on the belt. I’ve never been through Charles de Gaulle without having my film zapped. Some places are just impossible.
But generally I slip through unscathed by simply being gushingly polite and insistent. Facility in the local language helps as I can counter arguments delicately and understand the questions. This leaves me in good stead in Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking countries. Elsewhere I’ve not had problems though.
It also helps to have the film out of the boxes so it can be seen and opened easily. Carry it in gallon-size ziplocks so they have no trouble seeing it, and run everything else through the X-ray. Arrive with plenty of time for them to open each canister and fondle and swab each and every roll should they choose.
And if your film does get zapped?
I once had a roll of Fujichrome 100 X-rayed five times on three continents by accident. I left it in the camera. This could be from many factors, but that roll had signs of a lightness in the shadows when the scene had very high-contrast light. It was also slightly more grainy. All of these were easily corrected in a scan or analog print. But I figure the cumulative effect of those machines was there.
As you know, exposure is cumulative. It comes from both the X-rays and the visible light you feed it, as well as the heat you expose it to. All sources add up together. If you send film through the X-ray once or twice you may not see any effect. But it’s hard to predict what the result might be. I’ve seen fog, spots, stripes, waves and color shifts in others’ film over the years, but since so many things can cause that, it is hard to pin it definitively on the X-rays.
Once through, even with a moderate ISO film, should have a minimal effect. But the machines can be unpredictable. Though modern U.S. machines have lights that show the X-ray stopping when the belt does, I fear that older overseas machines let the rays keep pounding while the inspector peers into the bags. So pack the film loosely and in its own bag for the quickest look.
Those old lead bags they used to sell? Maybe they still do. But I also figure that when the operator cannot see into something they will crank up the power until they do, or pull it out and run the contents through on their own. Security is security…
This trip was a rare one in that I had two stretches of negotiation to do. En route here I had no trouble in Denver, Dallas or arrival in Rio. On the way back, I had to cajole in both Rio and São Paulo. It is worthwhile as I’ve so far kept my film free of exposure that I cannot control. Had I let it go through all the machines as the attendants said would not harm it, it would see X-ray light from five machines.
Here in São Paulo, where I write this, I met polite but concerned security screeners who called their superiors to deal with me. The superiors walked me to the main screening area where they asked the federal police officer present who said, “Just have a look to see if something is fishy. If not, no worries.” The supervisors fondled and sniffed a few rolls and let me on through.
The last thing I mean to say with this post is that it’s better to travel with film. I only mean to say it’s still a viable choice and worth consideration.
Time to board the next flight…
We work in a business that depends on our being “new” almost as much as it depends on our being good journalists. All editors and publishers strive to have a look that will attract readers. Thus we always need to be on the hunt for ways to attract editors.
Of course, solid work, delivered dependably, is extremely important.
But as I said in the last post, that creativity part of the equation is critical. We all slip on that, particularly after we find a groove that works for us.
Sometimes we get out of a rut or move forward by adopting a visual trend, a hip style or a gimmick. That can help push us forward, but all those are short-lived. Remember hand-of-god burns? Fuzzy black borders? Tobacco-colored filters? Holgas? Now ring light portraits and tilt-shift lenses?
I confess to many of those gimmicks too.
Long-term creative juice comes from longer-term work at it. It also comes from finding joy with what you’re doing. Here are a few ideas on how to get those things moving.
10. Have unrelated creative pursuits.
Creativity on one area can be fostered by creativity in another. Have other hobbies than photography. The best way to ruin a hobby is to make it a job, after all. I like to cook. I cook fairly well, but nothing like my professional, trained friends. That doesn’t matter to me.
I also get great creative joy from tearing up my knuckles wrenching on my funky classic car. Job of the week: New seat upholstery, and some concoctions to use up the glut of kale and dill in the refrigerator.
9. Experiment with new cameras, old cameras, weird cameras.
This old trick can easily be defined as a gimmick, but often gimmicks work for temporary satisfaction and long-term creative gain. It helps us see differently.
Though you can create almost any look you want with the latest digital technology (and enough money), there is a vast difference between making an image look different with a computer and using a camera that inherently sees the world differently. Visual surprises lead to creative plans on a computer later.
New cameras have many advantages. The new gizmos and buttons and video and bells and whistles can trip off great ideas. Their technological advantages — like now-noiseless high ISO — can revolutionize what you do.
And undeniably, the instant feedback of a digital camera has sped up the learning curve for a generation of photographers. My students are more creative more quickly, than I or my contemporaries were as students. No more waiting for the film to see if that idea or accident led to a cool picture.
But left to their default setup, all digital cameras look the same. Their similarity in sensor size and lens design doesn’t help.
Try different formats from the highest-quality Hasselblad to a dusty thrift store TLR. They have a look unique to their world. Get even bigger — try a 4X5, an 8X10, or if you’re rich, a giant 16X20. Creamy tones and crazy shallow depth of field that can only be had with a $10,000 lens on a digital camera. And on big film, cheap lenses look fantastic because all the optical flaws become meaninglessly small.
Try different shapes. That 2X3 proportion of 35mm and digital is lovely, but you can shake the way you see with a camera that shoots a square frame, a panoramic frame, or a round frame.
My favorite camera of the moment is a little folding Nagel Vollenda from the early 1930s. There’s only one B/W film, made in Croatia, available for it. I spent twice what its worth to have the shutter cleaned and calibrated. But it its images are little time machines, seeing the world in a long-forgotten way.
Weird cameras are a gimmick, yes. But this is all about keeping your brain thinking and seeing differently even on that stodgy assignment. Creativity everywhere else helps. And some of these experiments have led to great work.
So buy that weird little Lomo, put film in the Soviet-era thrift-store find, buy that 1950s stereo camera or make a pinhole camera out of a blow drier. It’s like being in junior high again.
8. Find the brilliance in new and old technology.
The Web is an incredible resource for discovering how your colleagues are using their computers, remote connections and the latest gizmos for break new ground. Even if you’re a luddite chemical lover like me, watch those blogs and scan those online communities to see what others have discovered. Not only will you find good ways to create your work, but fascinating ideas on how to present it.
Like I get great creative juice from cooking in the kitchen, I have always gotten good creative juice from cooking in a darkroom. When I was young I tried it all in B/W and color. I made classic fiber prints (and still do), I made solarizations, posterizations, gum bichromate prints and photograms. I had to be dragged out of my father’s darkroom so he could get some work done.
I still experiment with all this, for fun as much as anything. Interestingly, the digital boom has moved chemical technology away from big powerhouses like Kodak and Ilford, and off to small startups that are making amazing things. The lack of monopoly has opened doors to small manufacturers packaging film and chemical formulas last seen a half century ago. Thanks to the Web you can also more easily buy the components to mix your own developers or emulsions.
The results can be staggering. See Robb Kendrick’s work with tintype photos. Go to a museum, look at the unmatched ethereal glow of a daguerreotype, then try it at home (with mask and gloves and good ventilation).
7. Chase a totally foreign, or very difficult subject.
What’s your weakness?
Like an athlete who trains hard to overcome a bad habit, a weak skill or a physical limitation, we need to work regularly at improving what in our photography is not the best.
Can’t shoot sports? Try more, but not to the point where it becomes a chore. Try to keep your creative work from ever being a chore. But there are applications for all those areas of work that spill over into what we like to do or what we do well.
Being reasonable at sports action improves your mechanical skills and your timing. Fleeting moments erupt in quiet portrait sessions all the time.
Good at sports? I dare you to try it with a press camera, shooting single sheets of 4X5 film, or a hand-wound rangefinder. The timing required will help you never miss another moment.
Poor at portraits? Study some you admire and try them yourself. You’ll find insight into the working methods of masters become better at it yourself. Try that and everything else with a contemplative, slow camera too. Force yourself to think as much as you react.
And telling a story you’ve never told before will lead to new vision for familiar subjects. Pattern, regularity, predictability can be the death of creativity. If you shoot a small set of subjects all the time, break out on your own and chase something new.
6. Get help.
That can mean two things: We can take classes, study with masters at workshops, and seek mentors to help keep us out of ruts. A good workshop can be invaluable for shaking preconceptions and grabbing new ideas from the instructors and students both.
But that can also mean figuring out how to hire an assistant to handle the drudgery of the daily business — like filing, archiving, billing. More time in pursuit of creativity is a valuable luxury. That’s expensive though. If you figure out how to earn as much extra as it would cost to have an assistant, please pass that formula on to me. I’ll be at my desk going blind over keywords.
5. Play in other media.
A beauty of the Web-driven world is that we no longer need to be pigeon-holed into one craft.
I am a big believer in the mastery of one craft. Pick yours and make it powerful.
But like those unrelated hobbies, it can be good to dabble like a school kid in video, audio, writing, multimedia, Web design, page design, printing, book binding and all the other crafts that make the journalism world.
Write a journal. Shoot some video or cinema film. Record your friend’s band. Make an audio documentary. All will help the creativity of your story telling.
4. Really listen to music.
We all listen to music. For many of us, though, it’s simply background and not well understood. I am not a music theorist, but I am a music lover. I find great relation between photojournalism and the improvisation of jazz. I find subject and mood in most musical forms — all fit some subject, somewhere.
And above all, music is art. It makes our brains move in new ways. I once found myself on a hallucinatory trip listening to the challenging work of Cecil Taylor, laying on a couch with my camera photographing all the something and nothing the struck me as he banged and plucked bare piano strings.
Music conjures images in our minds that inevitably influence how we see the world. Let it do that, whether you like the genre or not. Wander the streets with rappers. Survive bitterness with the blues. Embrace the grace of the classics.
Observe how music is made visual in dance. Let the art of gesture color your observation of it in the spontaneous world.
3. Surround yourself with visual art.
Painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, graffiti, cinema, architecture…
As above, embrace every form of visual art you find. I don’t mean “like” it all. But look at it, imagine what drove the artist there and why he or she did what they did. Don’t listen to the critics only. Find those answers for yourself.
Read great (and not) literature and relish how the story is told. Let the images that flood your mind reappear in your photos the way images seen in photo books and gallery walls inevitably color your work. Savor the concise telling of a short story. Learn from both the riches of a novel and the economy of short fiction.
Read newspapers, magazines, blogs and journals to stay on top of the way the world is working. Look at the pictures too.
1. Critically study other photography.
I have 200 books of photography, I stop into galleries regularly and wish I could spend more time in museums. All of that work inevitably colors our own, either by an almost direct regurgitation, or through mood or style. We must see as much work of as many varieties as we can.
But don’t just find it there. Really look at it in the publications you read, whether you respect them or not. Analyze how and why the photographer made that image. As importantly, ask yourself why the editor published that frame.
Steal ideas. Absorb ideas. Regurgitate ideas. Reinvent ideas. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “There are no new ideas in the world. Only a new arrangement of things.”
Plus one: Think deeply about your own work.
The best way to get the wheels out of a rut, or keep them from falling there if they haven’t yet, is to understand what you are doing. Take all the critique you do of other work and apply it to yourself. What has worked and what doesn’t? What bad habits do you see?
Ask the same of others you respect, be they photographers or not. The average person is our audience after all.
But don’t be excessively hard on yourself. I know many artists who beat up on themselves all the time. They are not the most successful artists I know. It takes pride to market yourself and convince others of your greatness, just like it takes self-examination to improve.
The successful artists and story tellers are as proud of their own work as they are critical of it.