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  • Writer's pictureVanessa

The F-Stop Takes A Back Seat

The Blog Post in Which I Learn Not To Look Too Hard or Plan Too Much

Jay Maisel is speaking my language.

Maisel is new to me, but not new to life: he just turned 90 this year. He became a photographer in his early 20s and therefore has a thing or two to say about it.

Maisel may be best known for his commercial work, including magazine covers of New York magazine and Sports Illustrated. Personally, the idea of taking on commercial work makes me nervous. It’s the control freak in me, I guess, that balks at the idea of being paid to make work on the condition that it fits someone else’s vision. I’d be too afraid of the pressure; too afraid that I’d be forced to shoot in a way that didn’t align with my method or values, too afraid that my results wouldn’t meet a client’s approval. But maybe that’s my inexperience and ego going into defense mode. I know that some of the best work out there is a result of such collaborations and melding of visions. Maybe more confidence, trust, and the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded people would alleviate some of this discomfort.

Jay Maisel doesn’t appear to be short of confidence or comfort with his work. He’s been in the industry for so long and spent the last quarter-century focused on personal projects. He has solid experience to back up his opinions. Knowing that his specialty was advertising wouldn’t have attracted me to his advice ahead of time, but I’m glad I picked up It’s Not About the F-Stop. It aligns with much of what I’m learning about photography as art (and philosophy).

The book is divided into short, one- or two-page chapters, each of which distills the learning into a basic phrase used as the chapter title and provides a photographic example, complete with the back story. His anecdotes are engaging, his tone is casual and no-nonsense, and his advice is simple (though not always simple to implement).

There are no chapters about composition, or aperture, or why you should use a tripod. As the title suggests, making the photographs we want to make has less to do with our camera and more to do with our mindset. The beauty is that I didn’t think many of these ideas could align with working commercially, but clearly, that’s not the case.

One chapter is called “Stop Searching.” Maisel recounts a trip he took to Venice during which he became enamoured (not surprisingly) with the gondolas. He spent ages wandering around unsuccessfully looking for the gondola shot he’d been envisioning in his mind. “Without a doubt, I lost many other shots and was not aware of things right in front of me because I was not open to them….don’t put on visual or emotional blinders. They will severely limit your work.” (page 144) When he was finally able to let go of the shot he thought he wanted, he saw the other opportunities available to him.

Good grief - there have been countless times I’d been fixed upon landing a type of shot and spent so much effort looking for it (and failing) that I missed out on all the glorious things right. In. Front. Of. My. Face. I appreciate that pre-visualizing is also an important technique and skill, but if we let our expectations become so rooted that we can’t be flexible, this does us no favours. It’s like planning for a family vacation - it’s helpful to have a schedule and goals, but if we can’t bend them a bit and leave room to follow our curiosity, we end up in a situation where we’re technically in the right place at the right time, but the rain has soaked through our jeans, the food is overpriced and undercooked, our kids are pouting and we’re using loud, taut voices to ask them, “Isn’t this FUN?!”

I'd been wandering the village of Hespeler because it has a reputation for being picturesque: historic buildings, cute shops, a river, a dam, etc. Sadly, I was capturing none of it. Something made me look up. I loved the geometry of the lines, the colour of the sky, the texture of the wall, and the sprig of flowers. This was my favourite photo from that evening.

Back to the book.

Many of Maisel’s points echo those I’ve admired from other such photographers: the art of ‘seeing’ goes beyond our eyesight, mindful photography takes practice, ordinary subjects can make extraordinary photographs. In the chapter called “Be Aware of the Ordinary,” he writes, “It is our job and our joy to stop and see things that do not shout….As we do, we learn to stop saying, ‘There is nothing to shoot.’” (page 28) Yes! There are no excuses. There’s only how much patience and openness we have to see the interest in everything right before us.

Tiny things (usually) don't shout. I love getting right down on the ground to see what wonders are lurking there. This new growth straight through the middle of a dead leaf charmed me. I called this picture, "The Wheel Turns."

I’ll mention one more here - a chapter titled, “To Thine Own Self Be True,” which is, as he puts it, your one and only obligation. What I find photo-worthy won’t be so for all others. I won’t see the big deal about some art and that’s okay. “There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’” he writes, “It’s all about the way we have been shaped by the literature, movies, paintings, music, and anything else you can name that has influenced your attitude.” (page 92) I would add that the accumulation and fusion of each individual’s life experiences are huge factors in what type of creative work resonates with each of us. Our memory and subconscious drive so many of our preferences.

abstract photo of a mass of red tulips using intentional camera movement

I love using the camera as a tool to make painterly, abstract images. The smudges of tone and colour are often dream-like and ethereal. It's not for everyone, but I don't do it for everyone. I do it for me. "Another Go," May 2019.

Photographers - and artists of all kinds - will find value in Maisel’s words and pictures. Thanks again to the Interlibrary Loan department at our public library for getting this book into my hands. Now to return it (on time, because I’m a good library girl) so someone else can benefit from its lessons.

See you next week.


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