“The question is not what you look at, but what you see” – Henry David Thoreau
by Ron Levy
When you get a little more involved or serious in photography, being a photographer becomes not something you do, but who you are. It’s the way you look at the world, visually and thematically — a reflection of your inner soul. But is that “reflection” simply a window into yourself, or a mirror of how the outside world really is?
This classic debate began long before the invention of the camera. Artists have been depicting the world in its various “moods” for centuries. From realists to impressionists, the value of their expressions has oscillated between these same two perplexing questions. Especially in religious contexts, showing the wrath of the Gods or the wrath of man against saviors like Jesus, artists have depicted their versions of “truth” without having to resolvae the fundamental question asked above.
“The moment a fact is transformed into a photograph, it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
This quote from the famous advertising and celebrity photographer Richard Avedon addresses the issue in a more practical sense — that a photo is more of an accurate rendition of our biases than a truthful rendition of reality:
I think most people would have an easier time agreeing with his statement than trying to nail down how much of a photo is factual vs emotional. It is still recorded through the choices made by the photographer – framing, lens choice, exposure, focus, crop, shutter speed, etc.– so it is an accurate rendition of what the photographer saw or felt.
Nonetheless, whether filtered purposely by the photographer or limited by camera construction, it is still a two dimensional image of a three dimensional world. Or as a 2-D representation of something deeper philosophically, some detached “truth”, it is still not the real thing.
This isn’t a value judgment (yet). It’s just an acknowledgement that, long before digital manipulation became an issue, a photo can’t be taken as definitive reality. Here is one possible reason why: we humans are blind to most of the electromagnetic spectrum, seeing only visible light. And visible light is what most cameras record. So the broader reality is that there is much more going on around us constantly that we are simply unaware of, unable to control, and unable to capture.
Despite our ignorance and physical limits, we are influenced by these invisible frequencies and energies. We can assume, perhaps arrogantly, that most animals and plants are not consciously aware of these influences, though it may affect their lives in dramatic ways. Some simple examples are the massive seasonal migrations of birds using electromagnetism radiating from the Earth’s North and South poles, or bees that use ultraviolet radiation daily to locate food sources and their hives. Perhaps if we had their UV sensing capability, we would see things completely different, and our brains would be capable of reacting and appreciating the beauty of “that” part of our world.
Or, consider this on a more basic, physical level: wind. You can’t see wind, only the effect it has on physical things. You can’t photograph wind, only the results of that force. We know wind exists because we hear it in our ears and we see it move things, destroy things if ferocious enough, and, in general, change things on our planet.
So we are influenced by forces we don’t see, and we photograph the effects of all those forces on our lives. We photograph reactions on faces and in relationships. And we photograph those same influences on animals, mountains, rivers, skies, airplanes, etc.
By choosing which things to photograph, and what to exclude, we infuse a little of our “selves” into each picture. It becomes are “style” – that elusive word that is easier to see than understand. This reflection of us is a filter between how the world really exists, and what/how/when we choose to record it. We can only go so far with a camera. The “mirror” can only reflect what its inherent material is capable of reflecting. In a broader sense, all photos might be considered a form of art.
“If you’re not irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” – Rumi
This isn’t a bad thing. We all have scratches, imperfections and clear spots in our being that give us perspective and character. Sharing those insights and inspirations experienced from the massive depth of humanity inspire us and help us cope with personal and global issues. The inequalities, trials and tribulations of our lives propel us forward towards ways of finding cooperation, agreement, and resolution with others, not to mention happiness, peace, strength and resolution with ourselves.
Because of our heavy reliance on our visual sense, photographs and the desire to visually express ourselves will always be major forces in our lives. (I am not including here the desire to organize, document and study things scientifically; rather on the right-brain desire to find beauty, art, inspiration and relevance in the world).
So how do you compose your world, your life? The answers are often not photographic, but they become so. As you evolve in your passion and talent, equipment is often just the tip of the iceberg, taking a back seat to your ability to interpret the scene or subject.
Often, a great photo starts from just meeting people who are unafraid to be honest, discuss ideas, trade perspectives. A surprising benefit of discussing ideas with new friends, especially in foreign places, is finding common ground. Even though you may be from vastly different cultures and lifestyles, there is always a “point d’appui” (common ground), as Thoreau wrote. Find it, and find a way to photograph it.
Tweak your priorities every now and then. Rearrange values based on new information and experiences. Challenge what’s wrong with the way things are. Then move forward with a new confidence built on wider foundations.
Questions to ask yourself
Do you like telephoto, normal or wide lenses most (i.e. to get in close or stay far and disconnected)?
Do you do a “Border patrol” – watching the edges – what’s trailing out of camera, distracting scene, etc.? Do you recognize outlines, silhouettes, etc. of people/things (e.g. the “Hand of God” like Ansel Adams)?
Do you prefer certain color balances – warmth vs cool, etc?
Do you prefer darker vs lighter images or moods?
Or do you feel OK in adding any of these effects in post-process to accentuate or change what you saw?
Do you like to try out many different filters, gadgets, equipment, etc. to “enhance” the scene?
Do you look for photographic design elements such as leading lines, rule of thirds, frames, selective color or focus, textures, perspective, negative space, tangents, gestures, repetition/patterns, colors?
What’s special about this place? What might happen here, and how can I be ready or facilitate it?
Is there a “sign of the times” or something relevant to an issue?
What are the people proud of?
Gestures tell a story – energy/context in the space between them– orient subject to range of motion there
Context can be physical, emotional, historical (or time-related)
Is there a famous person or event here?
Is there anything particularly funny, contradictory, oxymoronic?
Is there someone/people with whole-hearted expressive emotion?
If you had one day or one week to shoot here, what would you shoot?
Do you like to be a fly-on-the-wall photojournalist observer, or would you interact more with the subject, surroundings, events?
Are you more of a solo worker or often collaborative with others, either while shooting or post production?
Would you consider moving people/things around to simplify, improve composition, focus attention, emphasize an idea, concept?
Do you like to find patterns, connections between elements or yourself and the scene or animal?
Do you react or think more intuitively or intellectually?
Do you go for the emotion or the message? Are you looking for an experience or an intellectual concept?
Do you like to plan out a shot or wait for a natural surprise or lucky moment?
How much flexibility do you have to change your plan(s) for a shot or be patient with a subject?
What is your risk tolerance to get the shot you want?
How much are you willing to dive into a situation, or push a subject to get an expression, or get them to relax?
I personally like to look for cross-overs and juxtapositions, such as the relationship between a dark area in a scene and a melancholy expression in a subject. Or an active subject in an otherwise pensive scene. Or two unrelated subjects with the same design or expression.
You can find an incredible amount and variety of juxtapositions and “opposites” in the world. Perhaps a subdued color or design in an otherwise glaring, blaring, busy scene. If you shoot wildlife, you might find predators and prey in the same scene, supposedly ignoring each other. Sometimes in scenes that don’t seem to have anything dramatic in them, just by staring at them longer, you might find subtle design elements worth pursuing. One example are the hidden eyes, faces or noses, as in a Bev Doolittle painting. They can add depth and timelessness.
The final, perhaps most important, question is: what filters do you have? Not the ones in your camera bag, but the ones lurking in your mind? This is different from the specific things you are looking for when you’re shooting. These are the things that you unconsciously ignore — your biases, your focus on details vs overviews, interpretive (feelings) vs facts, animals or people you prefer to shoot or interact with, etc. What might you be missing as you focus on what you habitually gravitate toward when you approach?
Your photos reflect the value of what you’ve seen before with what you bring to the scene. Nobody else has the accumulation and combination of your experiences – the good and bad of what has affected you to date. Celebrate all those kernels of inspiration and try to connect them to what you see in front of you.
Take lots of chances with your images. Push the boundaries of your technical and intuitive skills. Make mistakes and make note of them. What works and doesn’t work? (What doesn’t work here might work there…”Failure is the mother of success”). Learning nothing from your “mistakes” is the only real mistake.
These questions (and answers) are truly the heart of good photography. They are the necessary prerequisites — the intimate, introspective encounters with yourself and your history. Sometimes you have to do them in order, and other times you discover them together in the field. Either way, like any art, photography is a collaborative, recursive unfolding of focus and devotion.
If you keep banking good experiences and “breakthroughs”, you’re more likely to connect deeper and deeper threads in your life, and these will percolate from behind your camera to the front. As they say, sometimes if you relax your “thinking”, something will “think” for you. If you’re religious, that would be God. If not, that would simply be the unseen energy that comes into your consciousness as you pursue your obsession and give it space.
This process is what all great artists strive for — the Picassos, Mozarts, Carlos Santanas and great jazz improvisers of the world. Ease yourself inside that invisible boundary, like a child prodigy who only dives into the present, with no worries about the future.
There will always be hurdles to overcome. But when you’re in the “zone” – the core of your passion – you have a new thread to follow. Crumbs to find your way “home”. Go out and enjoy the journey.
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Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and scenic destinations in Alaska. Ron also enjoys working with companies, agencies and NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects anywhere in the world.