23 January 2021

Honest Photography

Everyone is unique and original, giving joy in listening to variety from other creative people. One day we like to listen to Beethoven, and another day Mozart.

But as already alluded to, there are those who have a significant marker in their work. While Haydn is good to listen to, his work is not as developed as Beethoven. It becomes tiresome more quickly. Composers were trying to develop music that could hold interest over longer periods of time. Trendy ideas did not hold up. Music was developed through composition, exploring harmonic changes, thematic exploration and expanding the use of minor keys.

Each artist develops their work over time. The foundations are pretty clear at the outset. People notice a new level of composition, complexity or maturity during an artist’s journey even if it is hard to define.

It is surely a healthy sign to recognise when a photographer does better work than one’s own. This gives inspiration, but freedom to rejoice with the other person. It may not be that one’s own work is “less”. It may be certain qualities as we see in the difference between Beethoven and Mozart. Nonetheless, if we cannot be excited by other people’s work in our field we have some issues to sort out.

This surely suggests all artists have the right to pursue their work. What becomes problematic is when people are not finding themselves, where attempts to develop work, or even to be noticed, shifts in other directions. To some extent this may be a difference between inherent talent and aptitude, versus some form of misplacement. It is dangerous to jump to conclusions on this, but we generally know when someone has what it takes, and someone else does not. Peers are able to judge among themselves, as opposed to the risk of one person judging and jousting our hearts in isolation.

An example of the danger goes back to when I asked a University lecturer if I would ever be able to write. I had poor grades. He said no. Yet, over the years, I developed a style of writing and communications. Another person said I would never be able to work with computers, because in those former days of punch cards, I could not punch holes in a card to answer a mathematical equation that was posed to me. I had top grades in mathematics at school. Being less aware of how people behave, I succumbed to the bad behaviour of the person denigrating me who obviously wanted to boast. Years later I worked on highly complex computer solutions for ASX listed companies. When I was younger I tried to be employed with IBM. I failed. I asked if there was any chance of working with IBM. I was told it would never happen. Years later I was an in-country specialist in my field with IBM travelling to various parts of the world and in contact with geniuses.

This does not mean people do not have talent just because it is not evident up front. If someone is following their dreams, they have every right to do so if there is inherent talent, and the time is being clocked up – investment of time.

There are those who think they can have what others have, and not put in the time. That is life. But there are also those who really do not have the outward sign of talent, thinking they are really good. Sometimes this is normal, in that we grow past where we are now, and feel embarrassed about who we were before and what we thought was good. But some people truly think they are good when they just are not. Perhaps it is a deep seated psychological condition that does not mean the person cannot be talented, but in terms of their current reality, they cannot express talent in a “true” and appreciated way.

I feel honest photography is about who we are, not trying to compete with others. Others may give us aspiration and new standards to aim for, but we cannot be someone else. In developing ourselves, we produce what others love. There is no exception to this. And the thing is, what we produce in our twenties, thirties or forties can be less developed than what we produce in our fifties and sixties, as odd as that may seem. J.S. Bach’s most complex piece of music was written on his death bed – even though he did not complete it, and it does not sound particularly pleasant to our norms of hearing.

When I first played music, there were pre-defined sets of sounds I felt comfortable with. Today I am able to surround myself with sounds I never could before, that do not jar my sensibilities. I have never been into strong dissonance, but there is nothing odd to me now about playing c, d, e, f#, g, a, b, c as opposed to c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c. It is quite beautiful and opens up my own ability to play sounds I did not before. And even though my prior years of improvisation were somewhat clumsy, it was improvisation my University music teaches noticed, and which people notice more today. These are creative developments in hand but developments we kind of don’t preset and predict.

I recall one photographer who tried to be unique by placing his camera up close to right angles on building walls. It never sat with me. I don’t know why my photos are exactly the way they are, but I don’t try weird shots for the sake of it. I work with my eyes, the details, and my intuition and creativity in some undefined way, just as over time people who play musical instruments develop their own style of improvisation. One cannot speak the same as another person, despite imitation. It is physically impossible anyway.

Another person seemed to me to be fairly underdeveloped in their use of photography, but interestingly they did stunning street photography. The person thought their work was in weddings, but their wedding photography was kind of average if not poor. We could expand on this, but the point is, why do we try to be what we are not, and why do we not recognise what we are really good at. Clearly street photography does not yield a few hundred dollars revenue – yet maybe it could have value in some way. I do put a caveat on this – the photographer may be really good now at wedding photography. I suspect it unlikely though, as I tend to think weddings need a standard set of “technical” equipment and a minimum of two people. There is also the question of our personal development, and how that comes into play with creativity or stagnation. It is harder for  the student to find direction in music by themself without teachers and mentors than the person who is apt and engaged in activity by initiative. There are exceptions though.

This does raise the question of technical skill. People were quick to give me articles and books on how you take photos. I took thousands of photos, including use of filters, so that was my learning. It turned out that the books were not saying anything different to what I learnt. However, they did clarify some things such as f-stops. I think I would consult the books for highly specialised work. Technical books don’t make me take better photos. Great photos inspire. Some disciplines must make use of technical books – no option. Often I have read a technical article that isn’t true. For instance, a specific camera lens is supposed to be a great all rounder, really excellent. Reality is it cannot reproduce colour and light – a big disappointment, and no wonder if you look at the price tag. It was the same for selecting speaker monitors for my digital piano. The Internet articles were saying how good one particular brand was. When I listened to the speakers at a shop, I said to the guy, they shouldn’t even manufacture it. He agreed. It is a matter of what we actually do see or hear and how surprising it is when we can trust that, not in an obstinate way, but there is a level of stability we know within ourselves. What we see is what we see. What we hear is what we hear. We have to “see” our medium. A friend of mine has real trouble seeing the things that make poor or unacceptable photographs. Yet, he is an artist painting beautiful work.

One friend into photography started producing some interesting photos, that over time escalated into amazing, amateur level award winning photos. For example, I had taken my own photo of the inside of a train carriage – no people at the time in the carriage. Mine was a good photo. My friend’s photo was jaw dropping and received recognition. Mine could not compare. This is exciting.

Good photographers may not have their work seen. I have seen amazing photography that has not been financed or seen by the public at large. It is a dilemma. Some people find a niche that will lead them into revenue generating projects. We all need income, so we may find some stability in our work.

But whatever we are doing, the creative person proves they are by being interested in their art form. People take pictures without anyone advising them to do so. You just do it. The same with computer programming – you spend countless hours doing your craft, even if the returns are small increments. Laying one brick at a time eventually becomes a wall one day when you look back at it. But if you are not laying the bricks, the wall is never built. You can’t fake some final product. People who want to steel or be criminal try to have the rewards without the talent or effort.

When I began my photography I was at University. I took an introductory course that used a dark room and film. During the years I took various photos that to me were a bit boring and unrewarding. I never kept those photos – hmmm. However, this at least shows I had an interest back then. What I see as interesting today may not be as interesting as something tomorrow, and what I saw as uninteresting yesterday may have new life today, and yes, be interesting. It is an odd game. Out of interest, I had photos of South Bank in Brisbane being constructed, but my best lost photo was of the fountain in the Brisbane River in the early 1980’s. I have not found any public photos of it since, but I had it. Most of our photos are lost over time so it is a real question – what do we do?

When I first edited digital files, I over compensated with preference for too much brightness and whiteness. After having edited literally thousands of files over several years I no longer worry about certain finicky details, and I don’t overbalance the image attributes. I think some of the earlier problems were around the newness of light and image to my mind. As we develop patterns in our brains, they settle down and we look for other characteristics to fulfill. I can still view older photographs and know they are “good” just as I can view a website and appreciate it despite it no longer impacting me as it did at first sight.

What becomes more lasting then is a sense of the composition, rather than the new experience of an image. Certainly for websites it is composition and content among other things. Practically we can develop our photography. For instance, if we are taking shots of a room, we don’t want a piece of waste paper on the floor – unless that is good for some reason. We can go to safety training so we assess and mitigate risk on a site.

But apart from reality and practicality, composition I feel is key. Members of the public all respond with their own preferences, which vary over time as well. I never know what photo another person likes or has no interest in. One of my “best” photos is in an empty room with a stack of chairs, a doorway to a corridor outside, and some cabling from a speaker system. It does something to me. Other people say it does nothing for them. They do not know what I am on about.

I am very aware however of people liking awful photos – bad tinting, poor conveyance of the image, blurring and so on. Bad photos don’t seem to trouble too many people. Just go to a souvenir shop to see some photos.

I posted two of my photos to a free site, and they clocked up millions of views and hundreds of thousand of downloads in a relatively short space of time. I don’t know why. Other photos were not recognised in the same way. I don’t know why. Of those two photos, one had a significantly larger portion of views and downloads. The composition had colours that people are not used to seeing every day, and there was the form of an object I captured in that room, which although off-centre was fairly symmetrical in itself. I think another reason is that the image was natural. There was no manipulation of the image attributes.

I quite like the way people can manipulate digital images, but it is not my focus or strength. My images are pretty constant in terms of presentation.

There are billions of people taking photos. There are multiple-millions of websites. Young people are trying very hard to find identity and meaning. (Perhaps view Dr. Jordan Peterson regards purpose and meaning via responsibility, and think carefully about spiritual things like the Bible as people have given their lives over the centuries.)

I find the best way to deal with composition is to continue on the road, and take time to do things others may question. “Why are you spending so much time on it?” they may say. There is something in us that likes to explore without having reason. It is precisely that which gave me insights and success in the IT industry.

Just rewards are born out of pain, joy, investment of time and more, but my thoughts are always coming back to being one’s self in an honest way. It is often quite easy to recognise the difference between people’s work, even though photography is just a flat image on a page or computer screen. And, we will find photos unique to our surroundings. We cannot take photos of the Space Shuttle taking off, or some bloody event, but we will stumble into some unique shots of our own. The reward is then also around helping others with our work.

My photos of the first shots for the helicopter landings at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney only came about because of each of the many years I lived in my high rise apartment, where I took shots of that area as simply what I did. I have many photos of my shoes and my carpet.

My renewed interest in photography came about from recognising I had never owned a Nikon camera since I had desired one from my school days, and that in a great illness, I felt I needed something to help me. My Nikon photography was born out of pain. One of the ministers at St. Andrew’s Cathedral encouraged me to take photos. My body of work was born out of a context, and thus it cannot be duplicated, or diminished. Everyone finds those moments where their creative energy contains a context of meaning and development. And because of this, we not only enjoy other people’s work, but we celebrate it, respect it and even at times honour it.

Because true creativity is a part of us, I personally find it dissonant when someone says I am a photographer. I am not, truly. That is not my identity. But it is meaningful when someone honestly responds to my photos and compliments them. This appreciation is perhaps normal human behaviour, and if that is happening, we may be around the right people as opposed to someone having to have the last say in correcting you and talking about their great piece of work. I surely know that dull dynamic.