The Blog Post in Which I Feel Desperation While Breaking Rules in My Kitchen
As a photographer still in the early stages of development, I spend a fair amount of time seeking advice about craft and technique. Here are the messages I’m receiving: good photos are perfectly exposed, they adhere to certain guidelines of composition, and, the sharper the focus, the better (this last one sometimes comes from the direction of camera manufacturers who claim that their latest gear will solve the photographer’s problems).
I’m not against rules. I’m quite a good rule-follower, actually. I have no speeding tickets, I always read the instructions, and, if my memory serves, I got in trouble exactly one time in elementary school (for giggling when I was supposed to be listening).
So, like a very good girl, I study the rules of composition and exposure. They’re solid rules and they exist for a reason. Photographers will do well to listen and absorb them.
The fun really begins when we break them.
I didn’t know that when I first picked up the camera. I wanted to make better-looking pictures. Understanding mechanics and improving technical skill are important pieces of this, naturally. But after noticing what often happens inside me when photographing - the unfurling of the mind’s eye, the expansion of my vision and ability to observe the light and the world around me - I knew there was more to the act than calculating appropriate shutter speeds.
One of my favourite resources is Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson’s Photography and the Art of Seeing. He writes, “Preoccupation with self is the greatest barrier to seeing, and the hardest one to break.”
Oh my. Yes.
Here are examples of some thoughts that might plague me on any given day when I first set out to make pictures:
Am I doing this right?
I forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer for dinner.
I can’t work in this harsh light.
Hurry up because this is the only hour you’ll have to yourself this week.
Am I doing this right?
I wish I’d packed some granola bars.
My back hurts.
Shit, I forgot my tripod.
Did I take my pills this morning?
Am I doing this right?
Me, myself, and I. Rinse and repeat.
Something needs to happen if we want to allow ourselves the pleasure and privilege of being fully open to our surroundings, of seeing and capturing something within - and even beyond - them. That thing is this:
Let go of our to-do lists. Let go of the mind’s clutter. Let go of the predetermined ideas of what ‘good’ photographs should be and let go of the worry of whether or not we’ll make them.
(Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that you should become completely oblivious to all except for the leaf you’re photographing. Please nourish yourself, fulfill your other immediate responsibilities and be aware of sketchy situations and people. There. I’m a mother and I have spoken.)
Today, I’ll share how I adapted Freeman Patterson’s suggested exercises to help me release some of the chatter and fixed ideas floating around in my mind, to ‘see’ beyond the literal subjects in my kitchen.
In Photography and the Art of Seeing, Patterson offers activities to encourage us to “think sideways;” to experiment with photography by disregarding some of the rules or ideas we associate with our practice. For example, he suggests shooting a series of photos in which the subjects are out of focus, to counter the rule that states our subject’s focus should always be sharp.
Okay, no problem. Sounds fun! (I already have a love of blur, so this one wasn’t much of a leap for me.)
In another activity, he suggests establishing a 15-foot circle of space in your home (by taking a random number of steps from your front door), then making a series of photographs, using whatever technique you like, while physically remaining only in that designated area.
Hmmm, that one’s tough. Freeman Patterson clearly doesn’t realize how unremarkable my house is.
While I know that limits push us to the edges of our comfort zones, I like my comfort zone (it’s comfortable there). Uncomfortable is icky (but necessary for growth, yes, yes, I’ve read the self-help books). Patterson says, “You should feel desperation” during these exercises.
Feel desperation. On purpose.
For this activity, I settled on this particular flavour of desperate limit-pushing:
Stay in the kitchen and only the kitchen.
Do not move any item in the room except for yourself and the camera.
Do not stop until you have made 25 pictures.
Every picture you make must be completely out of focus (or: OOF. I normally roll my eyes at acronyms, but this one’s kind of fun).
I went to the kitchen and picked up my camera to begin.
Crap, I should’ve done the dishes first, I thought.
And then: Don’t think too much, just shoot.
I made thirty pictures. It took me about twenty minutes. There were moments of photographic desperation, yes. I kept going. I looked harder.
A few shots needed straightening or an overall bump in exposure, but for the most part, I left them alone in post-processing.
Whether these pictures are any good is not important. They may all be destined for my computer’s recycle bin. But...maybe studying them showed me that something - a pattern, a shape, a particular composition or effect - was not only possible, but even desirable. Maybe the process itself helped me experience seeing a familiar object in a fresh new way. Maybe my emotional reaction to the OOF kitchen series was just as important - or more so - as the critical one. This was both an exercise in letting go and a flexing of the ‘what-if?’ muscle. Both of which - if regularly repeated - will benefit my practice.
Photographic desperation wasn't so bad, after all. I survived, didn't I?
What do you think?
Ready to try letting go?
Share your OOF experiment with me, if you like: