Self-doubt is a bottomless quagmire from which escape is difficult. We are who we are. If we’re lucky enough to have a vision and to feel passionately about it, then we owe it to ourselves to persevere. Slavishly adapting my style to match current trends would likely bring me more admirers, but then they wouldn’t be my admirers — they would be the style’s admirers. I’d rather have detractors. When we try to be something we’re not, we’re destined for mediocrity. When we’re true to ourselves, we give ourselves a chance to transcend it.
Every so often I see a trend develop that sort of rubs me the wrong way. That's when I invoke my "Blogger's Right to Curmudgeonly Commentary" and type out a post like this one. What bee is in my proverbial bonnet this time? Photographers who choose web publication as the ultimate display format for their photographs... and, yes, that used to include me.
The classification of photography as an "art" has done it a great disservice. Art demands that the viewer appreciate the technique behind it. It calls attention to its technical merits. A good photograph should never do this. Rather, it should just be. In 1951, Robert Frank told Life Magazine "When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice." Frank knew then what I've only just figured out — photography is language. And the language of photography is the language of the poet.
When is a photograph no longer a photograph? At what point is an image so "pimped out" that it leaves the realm of photography, and enters the province of illustration? If you clone a crumpled beer can from of a landscape shot, is it still a photograph? If you merge multiple shots into a single image, can you call it a photograph? If you heal all the pimples on your model's face, is it still their photograph? Where is the soft grey line between photography and illustration, and when do we cross it?
I'm no etymologist, but personal experience would suggest that the word "vacation" derives from two sources — the words "vacate" and "shun." Vacate means to leave, or to give up a place or position. Shun means to avoid or ignore something. For me, "vacation" means "to ignore my usual photographic inclinations, and to give up taking the kind of pictures I like to take — resorting to generic landscapes and banal 'I was here' photos." Photographs from my recent trip to the scenic Oregon coast belie, once again, my efforts to avoid the trappings of vacate shun photography.
The world is full of many things to see — big, small, chaotic, and quiet. Every person who looks out at this world sees it, feels it, and experiences it differently. The problem, for each of us, is to figure out how to craft a photograph that expresses exactly what it is that we see, feel, or experience. Studying the work of other photographers is the key to unlocking our own inner visual sense. It's through the examination of photo collections and photographer monographs that we discover how other photographers have wrestled a shared vision into a compelling photo. These are the lessons every photographer needs to learn, yet you'll never find them in a "How-To" book.
The internet is boiling over with pretty pictures. Galleries are stuffed full of pretty pictures. Pretty pictures fill the pages of a million different magazines. Photography is now about the medium, not the message. Today, it matters little what a photo contains, as long as it's pretty. My pictures aren't pretty. And the crazy thing is, I don't care. If you find this an intriguing stance then perhaps, like me, you're on a ridiculous quest to uncover the meaning of life.
If you ever logged into iTunes in hopes of downloading some groovy new organistrum music, then you've run right smack into "it." If you ever went to your local camera shop in hopes of trying out a new rangefinder camera, film camera, or even to buy some film, then you've also run right smack into "it." "It" is the invisible wall that separates your tastes from a generation's. "It" is a mile thick barrier of public opinion that stands immutable between you and your goals. "It" should never exist, but "it" always shall.
In 1924, Richard Connell wrote "The Hounds of Zaroff," better known as "The Most Dangerous Game." It told the story of General Zaroff, who had become so bored with hunting traditional prey that he turned to hunting the most cunning and clever prey of all — man. In 1948, Eugen Herrigel published "Zen in the Art of Archery", which Henri Cartier-Bresson considered an essential photographic text. How close are the parallels between hunters and photographers? And is there, perhaps, a little of Zaroff in every passionate street photographer?
On the afternoon of February 28th, in the final event of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, the Canadian men's hockey team beat the USA in a nail-biting, overtime gold medal game. If this country was a living organism, hockey would be its heart. It's a home grown sport that touches everyone who lives here. Canada is a nation of immigrants, but hockey unites us all. It's a passion that welcomes everyone and excludes nobody. It doesn't discriminate by age, nationality, religion, race, nor political view. The United Nations can only dream about this kind of harmony. When this country grants you citizenship, you must swear to uphold the principles of democracy, freedom and compassion. And this you do — through hockey.