some thoughts on reading, theory and technique
Many years ago, when I was quite heavily involved in amateur drama, I asked an older man who was in the position of being paid to direct the local youth theatre whether I was any good at directing myself. I got a qualified yes, with the following caveat: ‘You’re very good when you’re inspired, but if you ever run out of inspiration you’ll have no craft to get you through it…’ As criticism and advice it was obviously pertinent enough to stick in my head, and bubble up again whenever I found myself in a position (not just in a theatre) where the only thing that was going to get me through was some practised technique rather than a divine flash of light that would trigger another dose of my romantic genius. I gradually came to realise that I was lucky enough to be naturally quite good at a variety of things and unlucky enough to be too lazy to put in the work to underpin things when I’d almost ended up in the right place, but didn’t quite know how to get there.
The times I truly worked out some craft to get me through lean periods were generally for things which I did til something more suited to me came along. For example, I worked out how to do a good enough radio package to fill 3 or 4 minutes on the local station (get 2 or 3 interviewees with opposing viewpoints, ask them questions that are slightly ahead of the ones you’d have asked before you did a quick bit of research and stop before you’ve recorded too much stuff to be able to easily cut it down to time, structure it around the simple oppositions and link it with the background information and stuff to move the story towards a pithy out, in case you’re interested) so they’d still be giving me work and money when the one thing every month or so that was a bit more interesting came along and there you’d be with a quite good bit of radio that might get you a few more quid by being used by Radio Scotland or someone. On the other hand, if it was something that was mine, was MY ART, DAMMIT! I never seemed to want to de-mystify it to the point where – if I got stuck – I could just do that thing that you do when it’s like that and move on to the next bit that I could be inspired by.
As a result, I have many unfinished (and quite a few unstarted) projects lying around, in a number of fields. Until recently, I’d have said this was what was holding me back from taking photography onto the next level too.
So, despite the obvious tensions there are around the “old” level one courses here and the lack of critical/theoretical rigour involved in them, I must say I have enjoyed TAoP and its emphasis on general principals that underpin “good” functional pictures (understanding your camera, compositional stuff, and colour, so far) which have forced me to consciously start doing stuff that I’ve been sort of aware of for years without ever actually just working through them in a systematic way.
This applies not only to the course notes and Freeman’s parallel book, but also to the more theoretical, but still easily applicable to situations you find yourself holding a camera and looking at something and going “there’s a good picture here”, stuff like Shore’s Nature of Photographs and also to the definitely theory of the sort you read three or four times with a slightly scrunched up face like Graham Clarke’s The Photograph or Liz Wells’ book, where just spending time to think about (for example) what it means to turn 3 dimensions into 2 begins to seep into the stuff you’re doing.
Being British, it’s very easy to fall into that “Oh, but I’m creative – I don’t do technical” gentleperson-amateur state; now I feel more comfortable with the idea of photography as something underpinned by an understanding of how stuff works. I’m fairly sure that I could turn quite a few of the “there’s a picture there” moments that somehow never came off into something that worked now (and also some of the more dubious ones into something that might just work and if they didn’t have some idea of what went wrong); add in part four and some more full-on experimentation with lighting and I think I’ll be at least on the way to being transformed in the way I take pictures.
Right now, I feel quite shook up, but that’s where you ought to be as you set out to improve and change the way you do something, particularly when you have always felt quite comfortable with what you’re doing enough of the time to not take real steps to confront, examine and change it.
My apologies for the pure text of this post. I may well revisit and stick in some illustrations later, but then again I may not. Anyway here’s to a bit more craftsmanship and bit less tortured romanticism…