Just the other day I got a message through my website from someone who liked my photography and asked for advice about where to learn more. I ended up writing him a long reply about seeing your own work and then seeing the world through it. Here it is…
Last month I visited Bruce Barnbaum, a friend of mine and very well known photographer who regularly teaches workshops around the world. He told me that he likes to start his workshops with two questions. First he asks the students to write down what they want to learn. Then he asks them to write down one or two of their favorite photographers and what they like about their work. Then he asks them to compare those answers. Invariably, in response to the first question people put down technical questions that they want answered. For the second question they talk about composition and the feelings, emotions conveyed by the works of their favorite artists. There is the dichotomy.
Technique is important, but it is so much easier to learn technique now, because with digital photography you can experiment infinitely and see the results immediately. But beyond technique is the need to learn how to capture what your mind sees and what your heart feels in a way that will cause other people to experience something strongly from looking at your photograph. It’s not always easy to do this. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to learn how to be your own harshest critic. I shoot a lot of crap, but have no problem trashing it. When I was teaching myself landscape and wildlife photography, I was working in the rainforest in Costa Rica and shooting film. I would often come back with over a hundred rolls of slide film and then edit that down to a couple dozen decent photographs. And out of those there might only be a few that I thought were truly excellent. It is hard being honest about your own work. It still is for me. The hardest thing is to distance yourself from your feelings about the subject and look at the work itself honestly. There are so many times when I become entranced with a place or a thing, and then when I edit the photos I sometimes have to be honest with myself that I have just not effectively communicated whatever magic it was that I felt or saw there. It’s hard to make that decision, because your impression of the place influences how much you like the image.
There is another thing that comes with really learning to look at a place or thing and trying to express it with a photograph. When I truly focus like this it burns the experience of the place into my memory in a way that just being there never can. I can remember even the sounds and smells of a place more clearly if I have been trying to find a way to express it to others. It seems counter-intuitive, because it can feel as though the camera is a wall between you and the world. But when you start really finding your vision, it becomes a door instead – a door to a different type of experience with the world.