Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Importance Of An Idea In Your Photography

The Importance Of An Idea In Your Photography


Frank Calidonna

We have all done it at one time or another. Thrown our camera into the car and started out for a day of taking great photographs. Away we go searching for the perfect photograph. As usual it proves elusive. We look and look, but nothing quite seems to meet our high standards. Everything is too plain, too dull; not the stuff from which legendary photographs are made. Not wishing to waste a day we finally commit something to film out of sheer desperation. You already know the end of the story. Boring pictures and a wasted day.

The problem was that we hadn't the faintest clue why we were out taking pictures. We had forgotten the most important element of photography, the difference between photographer and snapshooter. Picking up a camera is identical to picking up a pencil. You have to have something to say or you will merely scribble gibberish. You need an IDEA.

Most people begin their experience as photographers both fascinated and intimidated by the numerous choices of equipment and processes. They hurry to find and purchase the perfect camera, the finest lenses, the best they can afford in lighting and accessories. They study, searching for the obscure knowledge that must be somewhere; that magic trick, hint, or deep, dark professional secret that will send them into the world as a truly fine photographer.

Yet superb equipment and interesting processes are not what photography is about. Photography is a visual art like painting and sculpture. There is only one important thing and that is the final product- in this case the photograph.

Are you ready for this? The world looks at your photographs, not at your camera or techniques. You have to learn to stand back and look with them or your goal to be a really first rate photographer will be lost.

When people look at your pictures they neither know nor care which camera was used or of your trials in the darkroom. Why should they? Do you know the make of the typewriter or word processor that was used to produce the last novel you read? Would it make any difference whatsoever to your understanding or enjoyment of that novel? As hard as this may be to accept, the exact same relationship holds true between your camera and your photographs.

I know. I know. You worked so hard to become a superb technician it is so unfair that no one seems interested in your pictures. Your first efforts were fuzzy, low contrast, boring photographs. Now they are tack sharp with eye-catching contrast, rich lighting, luscious tonality, and beautiful composition. You feel cheated that they are still dull and boring.

Most human response to photographic technique is psychosomatic. Composition is rooted in psychology. Your preferences for accurate focus, high resolution, contrast, certain color schemes, and even correct exposure in order to reflect some semblance of reality in your print are all physical responses. All of your technical training leads only to psychosomatic gratification. The intellect and emotions are still left wanting. Remember your beautifully composed, well-executed, dull, boring photographs? Ideas are what make the difference. Superb technicians are a dime a dozen. People with highly creative minds, able to translate their thoughts into concrete media expressions are quite rare. We call them Artists. They are successful because they contribute three precious things to the general body of art: originality, imagination, and communicable ideas all delivered with consummate technical skill.

At the beginning stage of your photographic career you should start asking yourself some very important questions. Why am I taking pictures? What do I wish to express to the viewers of my work? What are my short and long term goals as a photographer? The answers to these questions are not only important, but are essential to the strength of your work and your success as a photographer.

Remember the pencil analogy. Would you try to write a book on a subject that you have no interest or knowledge? Why try it with a camera? Are you a person with a camera just aimlessly snapping pictures? If a your only interest in life is photography you will probably be a terrible photographer. You need a subject for which you have a passion. Have you no idea why you pick a particular subject or what you are trying to communicate to an audience about that subject? This usually leads to the possession of a large body of very mediocre work.

Many new photographers make a common, but creatively fatal mistake. They become equipment addicts spending their money and their lives trading one camera for another in a vain search for photographic substance. Others become oral photographers. We all know at least one. They can talk knowingly for hours on end about equipment specs, processes, this film or that paper. They rarely actually take pictures or show any current work, if they show any at all. Other people just give up photography entirely. They may really have had something to say yet didn't realize the main purpose of photography was to say it. The whole point of learning technique is the same as learning English grammar - a means to an end.

" I just paint or photograph whatever I happen upon." We often hear that from people who aren't very good painters or photographers. Very creative people are focused and articulate. They may not speak or publish, but you can bank on the fact that a lot of thought takes place before camera, brush, or chisel is picked up.

How can you come to grips with this serious problem? For starters you must begin thinking about the answers to the previously posed questions. You have to become comfortable working with your ideas, and you must begin to write these thoughts down on paper.

Nothing in your creative life is as important and fragile as an idea. Initially they are fleeting and elusive. They must be recorded as soon as possible after conception or they will be lost forever. How many times has a new idea crossed your mind and then later been completely forgotten? You knew it was a terrific idea, but try as you might you are not able to recall it. Another opportunity lost.

Whenever and wherever an idea strikes, while it is new and fresh in your mind, you should immediately write it down. Don't let the moment pass. Your mate may think you strange if you leap out of bed at 3:00 AM to grab pad and pen, but those precious thoughts come unbidden at any hour and will disappear as quickly as they arrive if you don't record them.

After your ideas have been written down they must be mulled over in order to fully develop. This thought process is critical to your creativity so please - ponder in print. The act of writing is vital. I cannot stress the relationship between your verbal abilities and your camera strongly enough. I know, I know. You are a visual person; you don't like words and aren't too skillful with them. I hate to tell you this, but if you are unable to verbalize your thoughts in reasonably coherent English then you probably will not do much better with your camera. Ideas are language based.

However successful or famous they are, many commercial and fashion photographers work with a person called an art director. The art director is the person responsible for everything in a picture - how it looks, the colors, costume, mood, everything, but most important the art director is responsible for the concept and ideas expressed by the photograph. They are generally the highest paid individuals in any commercial creative project. When working alone you the photographer have to assume this responsibility. If a client is footing the bill it is of the utmost importance that there be communication. The photographer must understand exactly what is expected, the concepts involved, and should be expressive enough to intelligently add his/her own ideas to the project. Few people are going to pay you large sums of money just because you are a " visual person ".

Your own fine art or personal photography also has financial aspects. Unless you are wealthy enough to have a steady supply of film, paper, inkjet ink, other supplies and money for travel expenses all of this has a cost. As I age I find that time also becomes a very precious commodity, often more than money. Aimless photography is very expensive.

Robin Perry, a renowned and highly inventive photographer, stated in his book on professional photography that at least half of his working day is spent just reading. What does he read and study? Anything and everything; some of it with purpose the rest sheer serendipity. Realizing that ideas do not come out of thin air he is constantly feeding his imagination. He considers this time and activity essential to his continuing success as a photographer.

Look at the wealth of superior photography around you. You will find it in many places, but look carefully at magazine advertisements. Not only are the technical skills of the photographer displayed, but also the creative thought and planning that went into each photograph. Compare that to so much of the " fine art " photography that is shown to the world. No, you are not mistaken; most of it really is as tedious, vapid, and pretentious as it seems. Once a year we should dig out our kid's book of fairy tales and re-read the Emperors' New Clothes. Much of this "art" is generally supported by volumes of polysyllabic incoherence and is usually produced and appreciated by " visual people ". A great deal of the personal photography you see shown has the same problem.

Why did you take your last photograph? What were you trying to accomplish? Ideas thoroughly examined and expressed with clarity are one secret to being a fine photographer or artist in any visual medium. Utilization of the rich resources of language is one of the most important skills that a photographer can possess.

Let us discuss the practical aspects of recording ideas and planning the resulting photographs. As stated before start by taking your ideas seriously, no matter how frivolous or weird they may seem at first. Write them down as soon as you are aware of them. Do not worry about grammar and punctuation. Just write it down. Later, as you have time to think about it you will refine both the language and the idea.

After some thought try to write your idea up as specifically as possible. Avoid generalizations and ambiguity. A poorly articulated idea will result in a poor photograph; one that does not communicate the concept that you had in mind. For instance, " I would like to photograph beauty." Sounds terrific. Now define beauty-in visual terms. What specifically do you want me, the person looking at your pictures, to see in the way of beauty? Do you want me to appreciate it or do you want me to define beauty along the lines of your own perceptions? Different purposes breed different photographs. You have to know exactly what you are after first conceptually and then visually. By the way, defining beauty is an instructive project for every photographer.

Take the time to develop your ideas. The initial concept may enter your mind tonight, but you may need to think about it for a week, month, or even a year. You may write and refine it ten times before you are satisfied. Be aware that an idea is a very fertile thing. One may lead to another and another. The original may change from one thing into something completely different. Ten projects may be born with one idea.

Consider your audience at all times. Never forget the people who will look at your work. Who are they? Do you have a firm conception of what you want them to see in your photographs? What questions do you normally ask yourself when you view other people's photographs?

I recommend doing all of this writing in a bound book. Accountant's Record books are excellent as they come in many sizes from small gadget-bag size up to legal size. Get the size that you are most comfortable using. Do not use loose-leaf notebooks or pads. Pages have a way of getting lost or used for other things. This book selecting may seem silly, but the bound book is far more durable and safer.

Once you have your book immediately put in your name, address, and a note guaranteeing return postage should it be lost. The contents will be both valuable and irreplaceable. Allow three or four pages for a table of contents, then number each page. Write any format information on the inside front cover.

Format can be anything you wish. In my books I use numbers to label what I am entering. Anytime I write in the book I start with a number. They are as follows:

#1- Number one indicates that I am expressing the idea. These entries can be anything from hasty description to complete re-workings. Each time I add something I date it. This is for my own curiosity.

#2- Two is the place to take the stated idea and tell how you are going to visualize it. Who or what is going to be in the picture, how, when, and where? What do you want in the foreground, background, what colors, moods, expressions, props etc., etc., etc.? In short what do you want the picture to look like? Concept pre-visualization.

#3- Three is for production details. Models to be used, which camera, film, lighting, other equipment needed, site visits, permissions and releases required, transportation, money needed to complete the project, personal needs, etc. Whatever is needed to get the job done and a picture produced.

#4- Organization. If you are working on a complex project or one with a hard deadline, what has to be done, when does it have to be finished and delivered? When are the models to be ready to shoot, where are they supposed to be, who else is to be there, when is the polka dot paint supposed to be ready for the still life, etc., etc., etc.?

#5-Worksheet. This specifies who is responsible for what and when. I list each task, who the person responsible is, the date assigned, estimated time of completion and/or deadline, and the date completed. This is more than just a record. It will be useful in future ventures when you are required to come up with a realistic estimate of the time required to do a job.

#6- Proposed final use. Even in the beginning, try to think of the eventual use of the photograph. Will the pictures be a slide show, gallery display, captioned prints, book cover, illustration, or advertisement? Who should be contacted- editors, curators, businesses, etc.?

Much of the above sounds as if it is only important to photographers who are in the business, but they are equally important to the fine artist too. As a fine art photographer you spend a great deal of time and money on equipment, supplies and traveling to your favorite places. Many of these trips are not repeatable. Many scenes will not happen again the same way and many won't even be recognized unless you know what you are looking for.

When you have had an idea and have entered it into your book there are other things that you can do. You might want to give the project a title. Some people do not like to do this, but it can help to structure your future thinking. This goes into your table of contents. Date it and give it a production number. The production number is more than a convenience. If it is very complex and you are working on more than one project the number will save you the time and labor of writing and re-writing the title on other paperwork that the project may generate, a storyboard for instance. Do not use the page number for your production number. As time goes on you may have more than one idea book and that would be confusing. Try to guess how much room you will eventually need. Some ideas require one page others may need a whole book. This will depend on whether you use the book for drafts or just your final writing. I find that keeping journals a handy way to expand on any idea or just a place to keep the thoughts in play, but the idea book is separate.

Many people balk at the idea of putting their ideas into writing. They feel that the time would be better spent working with their camera or learning new techniques. I have had students become very upset at the thought of doing so much pencil work. Yet in a medium with such a high communication factor the practitioners should be able to communicate quite well. If a budding photographer finds this difficult or impossible, it is a good bet that his/her photographs will be quite poor. Possibly the most important photography course you will ever take will be titled "Creative Writing 1" or Expository Writing".

There is an old saying in the theater about the vital importance of written thought. It applies to photography as well. "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage." For the good of your creative life - take heed.

Frank Calidonna

Monday, April 2, 2007

Why I Turned Amateur

Why I Turned Amateur


Frank Calidonna

The wedding had gone very well with perfect weather, a sober and cooperative bridal party, no equipment problems and a relaxed pace. The bandleader gave me a nod. I acknowledged it and began to search for the bride's father. I found the father at a table and politely whispered into his ear that we were ready for him to dance with his daughter. The band seeing me do this began to play "Daddy's Little Girl". The father, now very drunk, lurched out of the chair and came at me screaming; " I told you I wouldn't do this. Don't you ever listen ???"

Bewildered, since this was news to me, I backed off quite shaken. I went to the band to explain that he obviously did not want to do it. A few relatives came up apologizing saying that he tended to become a bit strange when drinking. I was there for three more long, uncomfortable hours before I finally could pack up my gear and go home.

A few days before this incident I was reading an article on printing by John Sexton in Darkroom Photography (June 1990). He was describing in elaborate detail how he starts with a work print of very low contrast. He then makes smaller pieces of various print areas with different contrasts. He then lays these on the work print for comparison to help in his decisions about contrast, exposure, dodging and burning in the final print. It was a laborious process. I think he sensed that it might be a bit much for some readers so he threw in a little statement, " Remember, photography is supposed to be enjoyable!" That may have been a minor statement in the scheme of the article, but it had a profound impact on me.

Epiphany via a Playboy cartoon. The cartoon was quite old, part of a collection I have saved over the years. I was thumbing through it when I came upon Santa Claus. Picture tropical beach with white sand, turquoise water, a warm humid breeze and palm trees swaying. A thatch-roofed bar is doing a brisk business. Standing with a tall cool drink in hand and surrounded by a group of beautiful bikini clad women is an elderly gentlemen with white hair and a huge white beard. He is dressed in a sleeveless undershirt, has big red pants held up by suspenders and is wearing big black boots. He is telling the women, " There I was; stuck in a chimney in Des Moines, when I asked myself, ' Who needs this shit?'

That hit home.

Between the father of the bride, John Sexton, and the Playboy cartoonist whose name I do not know, I had to ask myself some pointed questions. Did I wish to remain a professional photographer? Did I want to become "just" an amateur photographer, lose my "Pro" status, and be a mere dilettante? I had to lose a lot of mental baggage before I could answer with a resounding, joyful - Yes!

Christmas of 1947. I opened my present and there it was. You pushed a button hidden under the leather skin, the front cover folded down pulling out the lens and bellows. Dad showed me how to look through the small reflex viewer and how to gently release the shutter while holding your breath so as not to shake the camera. Inside the box were two rolls of 620 Ansco film. We loaded the camera. I ran around the house dragging anyone outside who would come with me. I soon had people squinting into the sun while I snapped away.

Then came the excruciating wait, the first of a lifetime of waits. Dad took the film somewhere to be processed. I met him every day at the door asking for my pictures. It probably took a couple of weeks, but it seemed like years. Finally they were done.

They were blurry, fuzzy, gawky pictures of the family, but to me they were the most wonderful miracle. Dad brought home a huge album with black pages and a bag of corners. Each photo was lovingly placed in the album and dutifully labeled. Every roll of film after that was as exciting as the first; every wait unbearably long, and every set of prints as big a thrill.

My father also had a small German press camera, with which I was allowed to play. I would carry it all around the house and yard (I wasn't allowed to take it anywhere else) and focus on everything near and far. No item was too mundane. People, flowers, trees, the house next door, anything on any tabletop, bureau, kitchen counter, and especially all of my toys. I would spend hours just focusing on something and enjoying the thrill of seeing it in focus on the glass. This is still one of the most visceral thrills of photography for me today.

I obtained my first great camera in high school, a Rolleiflex with a 75mm Xenar lens. I then began to study photography quite seriously. My poor mother never understood the obsession. She felt there were far more important things in life than photography. Thus began the litany from my mother, repeated almost to this day (she is ninety-four and cantankerous), "If you paid as much attention to your studies as you do to that camera...etc., etc., etc."

There was such joy being a photographer. The satisfaction of producing something visual, from my head, using technical means with the added bonus that I could also get attention and approval. If I made the effort and produced a photograph I achieved something. I could get the satisfaction and applause or whatever I was or am seeking. The icing on the cake? The effort is definitely fun.

There are other lures of photography. There is a certain feeling that comes from looking at the world through optics. It is as much a thrill now as it was 50 years ago. I love the looking, composing, the control of lighting, calling on my knowledge of exposure, processing and printing that one uses to make a picture come into being. I find irresistible putting the puzzle together, and then the capture has meaning and gives satisfaction. This is the main reason I love architectural photography.

A portrait adds the element of capturing my feelings for the person on film and is the reason I now only do them now for people that I know and care about. My main love is gravestone monument photography, which combines the two subjects that fascinate me most, photography and funerary art.

Whenever I put an image on film, no matter how pleasurable that process, nothing compares to the darkroom. Here I am in my artistic home. Here is where I feel my creative urge satisfied. Making a large print- and I do love really large prints - to the highest standard possible, with whatever emphasis I choose. This for me is the performance, as Adams said, in photography. The mental routine in printing is very important to me. If I am going to be an Artist with the capital A, this is where it will happen. I absolutely love the whole darkroom operation. It is exciting and satisfying.

I did all of the usual photographic things in college. I took pictures for the yearbook, spent all of my free hours studying this wonderful subject, devoted much time and money taking pictures, and listened to my mother's complaints.

Then followed graduate school, marriage, and poverty- basically in that order. I began teaching in a small New Hampshire village and took up my love affair with photographing gravestones about the same time, but my camera was mainly used to record the first years of my children's lives. Four years later we moved to Central New York. I began working in a school producing educational visuals. I started teaching photography at a local community college. At the same time I began looking at my free summers as a time to earn some cash with my camera. Now the thoughts of being a pro became somewhat of an obsession.

Why the obsession? Well, at the college it became apparent that students took the professional photographer/teacher more seriously than the amateur counterpart. I chafed, as some of the people I taught with were not all that good as either teachers or photographers. Yet they were pros so one had to fight for the student's attention and respect. I decided I would become a professional photographer. I studied the business aspects with passion and began to take small portrait jobs. The big day was my first wedding. Armed with a Graphic Century with a roll film holder, Graphic Strobo-500, and a fifteen-pound battery pack ripping the lining of my suit I started on the wedding/portrait path to being a pro.

This was in the early 1970's. I tried to meet some of the local pros. One of them was a friendly face, but the rest treated me as though I had the plague. I heard of the PP of A and subscribed to their magazine. The 70's were also the time when the "99 centers" were sweeping portrait photography and putting about half of the studios out of business. The PP of A journal discussed these people and the "weekenders", namely me, with the same tones one reserved for highly contagious lepers. To say that the wedding pros didn't welcome newcomers was gross understatement, but I persisted and stayed in business over twenty years.

As Rome, NY is a small town I did a bit of everything. Wedding/portrait was the bulk of the business, but I sought out whatever architectural work and studio product photography I could find. I even did a three-year stint as a game photographer for a pro hockey team. Rather than becoming more exciting and pleasurable my photography became a blur of doing the work, hustling more work, mounting prints, sorting negatives, chasing commercial accounts for payment, in short all of the usual hassles. Every job becomes a job and slowly the thrill of photography was replaced by drudgery. The camera was no longer this thrilling creative tool. It was just a tool. I found myself thinking that if I saw two more people say, "I do." I would retch.

So yes, John Sexton's question really hit me where I lived. The answer to his question at the time I read it was a very definite and disturbing NO. How did something so central to my life become this disagreeable? Somewhere along the way the photography became less important and the business became consuming.

Prior to the father of the bride, John Sexton, and the Playboy cartoon I attended a portfolio seminar at RIT given by Elaine Sorrel. Ms. Sorrel is a rep for some of the top photographers in the business. Her seminar was a mixture of very practical advice interspersed with some rather wrenching emotional insights. She wanted us to ignore all of the previous ideas we had been taught about picking work for a portfolio. Her basic message was photograph and show what you love and the money will follow. This to people whom had been taught and believed that you tailored a portfolio to the potential client. She said pick your clients with care. Give the art directors credit for brains. When they need the kind of photography you do best they will remember you. I really had to think about what was it I loved to photograph.

I began to think about why I wanted to be a professional photographer. Was it love of photography or love of ego? There are obvious profound differences. Did I really need to be a pro to be validated as a first rate photographer? Did pro status even guarantee that I was a first rate photographer? I had to deal with the ego issue first. Yes it is nice to be known as a "pro" among your photographic peers. Many pros are very accomplished photographers. The term professional means that one does something well. Amateur according to my dictionary can mean that one does something with less skill- amateurishly. To give up the aura of one for the other would be a blow to my ego unless I was really secure with my skills and talents. More than that I thought about Ms. Sorrell's advice and wondered if I would ever be able to earn any or enough money as a pro photographing what I loved. What did I want to do with my camera? With very mixed emotions I finally gave up my tax number, tossed the letterheads in the trash, and turned away the calls for wedding services.

My dictionary's other definition of amateur is one who does something for the love and pleasure of it, a lover of the activity. I remembered the thrill of taking pictures with my first old box camera. I remembered the joy when I would take out the Rollei. I turned amateur to get as much of that back as possible. I followed Ms. Sorrel's advice and decided to just photograph what I love. Money has not followed, but I have had many one-man shows many in some of the better museums in the area. Most of all my camera, and time spent with it, is a delight again. I spend many hours each week just photographing that which I wish to photograph. The darkroom is again a joy. For getting all of this back into my life I will be forever indebted to Elaine Sorrell, John Sexton, the father of the bride, and of course, Santa Claus.

Frank Calidonna