Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Seeing Things

In a post to this blog entitled You Don't See When You're Not Looking I wrote, Pay attention! You never know what you'll see, but you won't see unless you're looking!! The point, and I hope it was obvious, is that there's a difference between looking and seeing. The former simply requires waking-up in the morning, the latter requires vision. I try to remind myself of this simple fact every time I pick-up a camera.

Seeing comes natural to some folks, I guess, but I had to learn to do it. I always thought that it's not the kind of thing one can teach, you have to acquire it, like acquiring a taste for whiskey. Knowing this, or thinking I know this, didn't stop me from trying to teach it anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, my almost-16 year-old asked me, Dad, do you have any cameras that use film? I could tell I was in real trouble almost right away. This was worse than hearing that 15 year-olds qualify for a learner's permit in Illinois, and confirmation of my deepest fear: my first-born child, the one I swore to myself I'd protect from everything evil and dangerous in this world, wants to learn photography. Aaaaaargh!!

I'd already given him a digital SLR, my old Canon EOS-350D, now he wanted something a bit more serious for his high school photography class. Luckily I had a perfect solution... a Canon EOS-A2 camera that I hadn't touched in a couple of years, I could satisfy his need for a good film camera without sacrificing my need to retain the ability to shoot film myself (I still have two EOS-1N cameras and an EOS-1 squirreled away). Having set him up for film was going to be the easy part, the hard part was yet to come.

I really don't want to encourage him to become a photographer for the same reason my father didn't want me to become a watchmaker... advances in electronics are sure to ruin the industry and make it difficult to earn a decent living. My dad knew that the advent of the quartz-crystal movement would kill-off fine mechanical watches (well, almost) and he thought my desire to join him in a business that was in decline was not a good idea. I'm glad he lived long enough to see that after an initial shake-out where people, myself included, largely purchased electronic watches, there would still be a demand for fine watchmaking. Perhaps naively, I look forward to the return of film-based photography, but I digress.

Back to the hard part: last Thursday my son asked me to take him out shooting with me on the weekend. Now..... when I go out to make pictures I have a specific objective and a well thought-out plan. I've typically scouted my location and schlep all my gear, including a few tripods. I plant myself in a predetermined spot and make a lot of exposures, and minor variations in perspective, and come away with one image with which I'm, hopefully, satisfied. Yes, I also do some street shooting which is quite a bit more open-ended; but even then I have an objective and a plan, however loose it may be.

Sunday was cold, mostly cloudy, not really a day to be out wandering the streets with a camera, but rise to the task I did. We got in the car with our cameras and I started driving. "Where are we going," he asked?

"Highland Park," I replied.

"Dad," he said, somewhat dejectedly, "there's nothing to shoot in Highland Park. Can't we go somewhere else?"

I was thinking of a glib rejoinder, something along the line of, Where do you want me to take you, Istanbul? Rather than cracking wise, I told him, "There's lot's to shoot in Highland Park, you just have to learn to see." Then I told him a story that Jay Maisel had told me about a conversation he'd had with one of his workshop students. According to Jay, the student tells him that she's dying to go to Provence (or Tuscany, I can't remember) to photograph because the light's beautiful in Provence. Jay's reply: You don't have to go all the way to France, the light's beautiful in Brooklyn!


So we set out for Highland Park, loaded his camera with a 36 exposure roll of Kodak Tri-X Pan film and I, thankfully, was able to point out that there is indeed quite a bit to photograph in a sterile Chicago suburb. You simply have to look... and see.
All above: Canon EOS-5D, 28~105/3.5~4.5 Canon EF Ultrasonic lens, ISO 400


Blogger Mike Shipman said...

So very true. Learning to see with awareness (vision) is the key to being successful at photography; success personally and commercially (if that's where you want to go with it).

Jay's work is a good example of finding gems in unlikely places. I've always been a fan and enjoyed a workshop with him in Sedona.

For a similar purpose, I conduct a free bi-monthly gathering I call a PhotoCrawl (see the Flickr Group - PhotoCrawl Idaho) for area photographers to gather socially, explore new areas (or old areas, but looking at them anew), try new things, and just get out and shoot. I've been doing it for a year now. It's a good exercise for me, I enjoy this as a way to give back to the community, and it's a lot of fun.

1:44 PM  

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