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Making Your Mark

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

When I first started out taking this photography game seriously, I was concerned, as most photographers are, about developing my own personal "style." As if it was something I could plan for. I knew that it was inherently important to "making it" in photography, but had no clue as to how to go about achieving it. So I did what most everyone does, I just started shooting things that interested me and hoped that the "unified vision" would miraculously appear eventually. A leap of faith if you will. I guess there are some people that can devise a style plan and then go shoot it, but that wasn't me.
Looking backwards, the problem is compounded by not being able to see the trees because the forest is in the way. When we find ourselves searching for our unifying vision, we tend to have in our minds ALL of our work, not the edited selects which is where our vision manifests. Film of course made this whole process dreadfully slower and shockingly more expensive.
And of course, declaring to yourself that your searching for your vision is a great way to completely shut down your creative process. I've seen it dozens of times at workshops I've lead. The participants now have the added creative burden of knowing that whatever work they produce over the coming weekend or week will be judged not by their mostly disinterested family, but by the keen eyes of fellow enthusiastic photographers. So they wander about not photographing anything, searching for the epic shots that will make them stand out amongst their peers. And of course by not photographing anything they have completely shut down their ability to create any vision at all. The moral of the story: anything that makes you stop and look and wonder should be explored photographically if you have the time.

Making art. There are hundreds of personal choices that go into the creation of any single photograph. Digital has the potential to automate the essentials, which is a step backwards not forwards for the art of photography, but most digital cameras have the facility to override the automation and in that way can be just as effective. Technique must be mastered to the point of transparency. Only then can the internal emotive reaction of the photographer be allowed to shine through. And it is this internal, subconscious decision making that leads us to the photograph that translates the photographers vision of the scene into the photograph. which is the part that has any chance of resonating with the viewer. Otherwise the viewer is subjected to another snapshot or postcard of a scene which records the information of being there, but not the feelings or emotions of being present. Usually the internal vision is revealed by stripping away all the unnecessary details which obfuscate the desired feelings and leaving the essential elements that convey the emotion. "Most painters reduce the sun to a yellow blob, Van Gogh takes a yellow blob and turns it into the sun." ~ Pablo Picasso. Or as Shakespeare said: "What light through yonder window breaks, it is the east and Juliet is the sun." Any lessor writer would have said "Juliet is like the sun that shines from the east at dawn." The difference is the difference between a postcard of a scene and a powerful emotion filled vision carefully crafted, pregnant with meaning, vision, and emotion.

An engineer who was a workshop participant once asked me, " how do you separate the signal from the noise?" Great question. And one not easily conveyed through words. I then proceeded to demonstrate how I composed a scene of a very chaotic river through the Mt St Helen's wilderness and he saw right away how I did it. It comes down to isolating the element that attracted your attention and enhancing it through exposure, focus, shutter speed etc.. and stripping away the details or minimizing the elements that subtract from that element or elements you want to emphasize. Knowing that you won't be successful every time or even most times. But practice and experience make the process easier and faster as in all endeavors.
The photograph, like Shakespeare, speaks through metaphor. And the photographic language is mostly one of omission. The more you can strip away, usually the more your image has a chance to speak to, not just communicate, where you were or what was happening there. It's the difference between reading your cameras owners manual vs Romeo and Juliet: one is great for finding information and is written for that purpose (or as a sleep aid) and the other explores the human condition on the existential level, full of beauty and tragedy in it's entirety boiled down in an artistic crucible that moves people profoundly even after 400+ years.

Finding the order in the chaos is a theme that resonates with most humans on a primordial level. Most of history's most brilliant theologians had severe doubts of their faith. Thomas Aquinas and Mother Teresa are two notable ones. The human fear that it's all just chaos runs deep within and photographs that capture a hidden pattern or meaning in the natural chaos ring like Beethoven's 9th Symphony, except silently, which is actually the way Beethoven heard his 9th....
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