The best pictures tell an unfinished story, with a sense of place or personality - what, where, when, how. I love painterly colour yet also see strength in black and white form and composition. Maybe too eclectic?
I have used Nikon for ever, and have been digital almost from the beginning. That said, I have rediscovered my Leica, especially for street and black & white. I also love the creative versatility and freedom of the iPhone, and some images here are Olympus 4/3.
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Category Archives: Art
I first posted a version of this in 2010, on mick’s leadership blog.
It still seems highly appropriate, though this time in a “photographic” context.
I got a little acquainted with Zen in the 1960’s, part of my own quest for “truth”. And whilst many other philosophies and concepts have entered my mind and been very helpful since, I have never forgotten the Zen Parable of “Beginner’s Mind“.
Here is one version:
“One day an important Samurai, a man used to being in control at all times came to visit a famous Zen master. “I would like you to teach me more about Zen, to help me gain enlightenment and so become a better sword fighter.”
Zen, a philosophy of action, is inextricably linked with the Samurai Way, so the request was not that unusual.
The Zen master smiled and said nothing. Instead he motioned to discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the ceremony was complete, the tea was served. The master poured the tea. He poured and he poured. The tea flowed over the rim and began to spill over the hand of the samurai – who jumped and dropped the cup.
The samurai was angry. “I came to be taught, and all you do is spill the tea over my hands. Can’t you see the cup is full?”
The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup. You are so full of what you know that there is no room to add anything new. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind, a Beginner’s Mind.”
This rings so true, and is, in many ways, the key to all learning.
It has become clearer to me over the years that the more experience we have, in whatever field of endeavour, the more it’s actually harder to exercise “Beginner’s Mind”. We spend a long time learning how to use our cameras, studying how others succeed (or fail), wondering how “The Masters” did it, and seeking advice from others.
We might even develop our own signature style, and try to stick with it.
However, to be truly inventive, just like the samurai, you need to decide what to discard to make room for new things. Sometimes this just happens, when we “see” something new, and want to capture it a different way.
But, Louis Pasteur was right when he said that “chance favours the prepared mind”. We need to make space for the inventive, and the conscious act of thinking through what it means to us, is a great place to start. We need to “see” each picture both as a moment reflecting our own knowledge and style, and a new moment, never before seen by anyone, including ourselves.
Let’s use our existing wisdom and ideas to help others succeed, yet also find enough space to keep learning new things.
My New Year wish – may we all practice “Beginner’s Mind”.
“Perhaps in the end the difference between image and word isn’t relevant.
Because ultimately it’s all scriptural: things such as light or ink mark and are recorded on surfaces, and that’s an event of writing.
I also don’t think there is a massive categorical distinction between digital and analog photography, or digital writing on a laptop and writing on a typewriter or by hand.
We live in what Michel de Certeau calls the “scriptorium”. Everything is written. We’re within a set of networks of archiving, recording, transmitting and making visible, or hiding and eavesdropping”.
As Laurent Scheinfeld and I last night were talking about our “voice” in our photography, McCarthy’s words struck a cord. Is our “photographic voice” simply our words expressed in an image?
At the recent Leica Meet in Paris, I lost the group (!), and wandered off.
The Centre Pompidou is always interesting, and it had been a while since I had chance to really “see” it. I once more saw the spray stencil graffiti by Jef Aérosol (the pseudonym of Jean-François Perroy). It’s called Chuuuttt !!!, and it was inaugurated 18th June 2011. This has to be one of the best positioned graffiti selfies of all time!
Here are some links to Jef Aerosol
I did a version finished in Exposure 6 (Alien Skin) as Kodak Ultra Color Film. I really enjoy using the film settings with this software, though friends would say “why don’t you just shoot in film?” I guess I like to ring the changes and digital allows just that.
I also used Silver Efex Pro (Nik), with my usual “street’ contrast recipe.
This is one where I am really torn whether colour or black & white is best. Views?
There is so little time
Left in Eternity
For our dearest dreams
To reach their climax
So little time
Written November 1968
Photography is a passion
Photography is a record
Photography is time
Like most photographers, digital happened to me years ago. Digital has exploded photography. Creativity is everywhere. Social media compounds the creative energy.
And whilst we all still compose and “take” pictures, in so many ways the computer is leading us. It takes skill, even bravery to override the camera’s automatic settings. The camera beeps and flashes if it is not focused right. Numbers appear, and symbols rotate.
Magic happens behind the view screen.
And it works.
A long time Glastonbury fan, I rely on the Nikon to capture impossible shots, zoomed way out, in lighting so bad. Serendipity plays a part, but the Nikon handles chance with its computerised dice.
The show of the ages
The Stones at Glasto. Everyone’s dream. Mick has been in special training, studying headliners, not wanting to copy U2’s disappointment. 50 years in the business and still at the top. And what a great gig it was!
But, much though I love Mr Eavis, those damn flags just get in the way. So imagine my surprise when a sequence of shots captured the three Micks, perfectly.
I was going through the images, comparing and contrasting, looking at the settings used. And then I remembered the very last film camera that I bought.
A Leica. M6. And a couple of lenses.
Time to dig them out of the family squirrel box.
A Noctilux, a lens that can see in the dark. Let’s try it. Where can I get 35mm film? Better yet, didn’t I read somewhere that the digital brother of the M6 can use every lens ever made by Leica? No messing about with new fangled mounts.
You still set the shutter speed by hand. You can’t actually see through the lens. The rangefinder glows bright, and your fingers twiddle and turn. You mess up, and there is no way the camera will rescue your image.
Is it sharp? Isn’t this taking too long? Wouldn’t the Nikon have taken 10 pictures by now?
Well, it works.
The rangefinder forces you to compose, to consider. The manual settings force you to re-learn how light really works.
And you rediscover time.
Time to think. Time to compose. Time to be sure the image is right. Once it’s set up, it also eliminates false precision. Set the exposure, and leave it. Don’t fiddle.
A trip to Ghent was a good test.
Usually, it’s a bag full of lenses, switching to match the possibilities. I am proud of the kit, and know how to use it. It takes time, of course, but it’s action, movement.
So it’s not a waste. It’s a positive to have such complexity. What happens if we drop all of that?
What happens if we keep it simple?
Let’s try just one lens, and not even a zoom. Let’s try 28mm.
And let’s push it as far as you can. Low light. Low shutter speed, hand held.
Technically, the Leica M9 has a smaller sensor than the Nikon. Lower megapixels. It has a more restricted ISO range. So grain shouldn’t be handled as well. But the eye is happy with the results, and that’s what counts.
It is true that the D800 takes absolutely stunning images. But never take a Leica to a rock festival and try to shoot from the other side of the field. Never take a Leica to a Formula One event. Yes, by all means capture the driver’s mood, their confidence, and their escorts.
But if you want the racing action, the Nikon wins every time.
Then remember that some of the world’s greatest photographers only ever used a rangefinder, a Leica. They did it on film, and they took their time.
I can never be Henri, and would never even dream that I could be. His “perfect moment” is etched in the world’s consciousness.
But when you spend a little more time, thinking about the scene, you calm down. Your brain is at work, not the computer. Images are more instinctively about the people, and less about the technology.
You take time to be sure the image is sharp, and that it is well composed.
And time slows down
It even deals with those damn flags.
Ok, maybe not exactly flags, but the wind blowing the streamers. The man, the piano, the cyclist and the streamers.
With one lens. One setting.
Those damn flags. Captured. Frozen.
A moment in time.
I, The Painter
Mix the colours
of golden apricot
and Spring cabbage
Lay the mixture
on the warmest paper
Create a melee
of contortionate light.
This is the process of painting.
Written July 1970
Painting was where I started all those years ago.
Yet photography has always been close to my heart. I remember getting my first serious camera (a Pentax KX) shortly after leaving University. I was later lucky enough to become a Nikon devotee, and still am.
In 1990’s digital started to appear. The Nikon D1 broke all the rules, and helped to make digital accesible, professional and mainstream.
Now of course it is almost all digital – no messy chemicals, no risks with the film, instant pictures which are infinitely modifiable.
Not just professionals, but all of us now have the ability to fix things later. We do not need to just rely on the moment of capture. Photoshop takes care of that.
“Clone out the weeds, the detritus”.
But it’s not just the transformation from film to digits. It’s the transformation in the device we use to capture the image. We have the iPhone to thank for an enormous explosion in photographic creativity. The latest Apple TV Ad notes that there are more pictures taken every day on an iPhone than on any other device. Is that true? I think I can believe it.
Is there a debate any more? You still hear purists saying:
“Mobile is killing serious photography”
“The world has gone LoFi” – not just the music but also the images.
I think that’s nonsense.
It’s still true that some understanding of the basics of photography are essential to creating good images.
Is the subject in focus? Handling the backlight? When to fill-in with flash? What is the rule of thirds? How do you manage depth of field?
It’s not just the camera settings, though. How many filters do you have on your phone?
They might just be simple auto fixes – but then we can grunge things, make them “noir”, pointillist, artistic.
So the devices have changed. And the way we process has changed.
But perhaps the biggest difference is how we now share images.
Do you post to Facebook? Google? Instagram? Flickr? 500px? EyEm? Oggl? Blipfoto?
Do you post in carefully constructed albums, or for instant sharing?
I remember the mantra of “Good subject, good light and good composition”.
Today, that seems to become questions such as “Share with who, and with which filter”?
“Create a melee of contortionate light” I wrote all those years ago. And that’s still true today. The light is constant – that is the artistic given.
But the melee has changed.
The melee is the sharing.
Despite this change, behind every good photograph, the purpose of the image is still the central question. What is the photographer trying to portray? What emotion is being elicited? What information is being imparted to the viewer?
Isn’t that still true, when you share to Facebook?
Why are you sharing? What are you sharing? What response do you expect?
This sharing leads to another massive shift – the “instant” critique of the picture. Whatever you upload, there is no going back. No fiddling in the darkroom. The image is there. Public. And it is voted upon.
Is it liked? Loved? Commented upon?
Perhaps as well that Anselm Adams wasn’t subject to such stress.
All you can ever do is delete the image, and admit defeat. It’s now. Instant, and it’s public.
A kind of social polaroid. Fixed. Frozen. Locked. And either admired or ignored.
So, did digital kill the craft of photography? No, of course not. It simply spawned dozens of new crafts, and made a few unnecessary.
And is mobile killing quality?
No, the wisdom of crowds, and their appreciation or dislike push us to quality.
There has always been snapshots. Fodder for the processing lab. Instagram is home to a lot of rubbish.
But it seems to me that photography has never been creatively more alive
Images of all kinds. All genre. All styles. All in copious quantities.
Quality is getting better.
And our discernment of a powerful image has never been better.