Tuesday, January 03, 2012

a few notes on photography.

One of the earliest photographs taken by me is from Christmas, 1985. My mom, dad, and uncle are sitting cross-legged in front of our Christmas tree, and my dad and uncle have been decapitated somewhere around the nose by my 5-year-old photographer's eye. (My mother, being somewhat shorter, is only missing part of her forehead). A decade would pass before I took up photography more seriously, by which time that uncle had died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 50. He had been an artist and photographer, with an extraordinary eye, and I wish I had known him longer.

I was in high school when I began studying photography. Mr. Bauer would give us assignments: photograph an egg, to understand shadow and light, photograph an object in motion, to understand shutter speed, try different speeds of film, to understand the texture of different sensitivities. You were given unlimited rolls of film, to help you learn how to shoot, but limited quantities of paper, which taught you how to print with minimal waste. It trained your eye, too, to judge from the contact sheet which frames were worth printing and which were not.

In college, the late Roger Mertin was my professor. For our first assignment, he taped over our viewfinders to help us trust our camera's eye and to gauge exposure without looking at the light meter, but I forget what else we did later on. I do remember that we had to buy our own film and paper; this made you think even more carefully about what you were shooting instead of recklessly burning through roll after roll of film.

I was slow to join the world of digital photography. My uncle gave me a Leica Digilux 3 about four years ago, and it's taken me almost that long to get used to it. My film camera, a Nikon FM2, had been with me since I was 16 years old; with its 50mm lens it was an extension of my left eye.

Photography is like cooking. There are fundamentals and rules, and then there are variables that can't be controlled. You don't really need to go in knowing all the basics, but knowing them is great. Having an understanding of aperture and shutter speed, focus, composition - they're like knife skills, or the ability to roast a chicken or cook an omelet. They give you a foundation that nothing, no one, can take away from you.

Find someone, or several someones, to inspire you. See what they look for through the eye of a camera. Eventually you develop your own eye, your own taste, your own ideas about what you want to portray. You can break all the fundamentals, all the rules you learned so carefully. At the end of the day, the only person whose opinion matters is your own. And who's to know if something didn't come out the way you intended, unless you tell them?

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