In the 1980s, I studied photography at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, not far from the White House. The students were poor and the cinema was expensive. So we were surprised when a classmate doing an internship at National geographic told us that a photographer had returned there from an expedition with six hundred and fifty pieces of film on display. At thirty-six images per roll, that was twenty-three thousand four hundred exposures. There was a logic to this overproduction: it was the work of the Geographical image editors to distill all those images into an article that might only include fifteen or twenty shots, and the editors wanted an overabundance of options. To end up with a small number of visual patterns – cowboys in a bar, for example, or branding irons in a fire – they had to start with a larger number, and, for each pattern, they didn’t want to few alternatives but hundreds. .
Brute force is one way to get good photos. Another is control. After my studies, I worked for a DC photo studio. This was before Photoshop, so everything in our photographs had to be controlled. Once we had to do an aerial view, looking down, of two models, a man and a woman, on inflatable rafts, floating in a dazzling blue pool, facing opposite directions but holding each other the hand. The sky was overcast when we took our test shots, and we realized that our flashes couldn’t go through the water with enough intensity. On the day of filming, we would be dependent on the sun to illuminate the bottom of the pool. The boss was worried and stressed. All the expense, all the planning, so that our success depends on the acts of nature? It was almost more than a self-respecting control freak could handle.
Both approaches aim to solve the same photographic problem. The problem is that photography is subversive. It subverts our intentions, desires, and expectations at every turn, in a thousand ways, and then bestows its gifts in whimsical and fortuitous ways. Some images work and others don’t, for always surprising reasons. Specifically, a few work and most don’t. The late Erich Hartmann, former president of Magnum, once showed me the negatives and contact sheets of his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson, stored in the New York offices of the famous photo agency in rows of three-ring binders. lined up on shelves. Sheet after sheet, I did not recognize a single photograph. Some worked, most didn’t, not even for HCB
Fortunately, there is another side to the equation. If you take enough photos, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up taking an amazing one, for reasons you may not understand. Cartier-Bresson was a hunter in his youth, and photographers have often described his brand of street photography as a kind of “hunting”, but it might be more accurate to say it was like fishing, a sport in which you can do a lot to optimize your chances, but you still can’t know for sure what you’re going to get. Chance is almost always in play. Sometimes everything comes together in front of the lens, and the visual world sorts itself out in frame, and you get a little gift. None of us really know for sure if or when the magic is going to happen.
Today, of course, we are in the era of digital photography. In the 1980s, I remember reading that six billion photographs were taken every year, a number that seemed as big as the ocean; currently, although the exact numbers cannot be known, the world probably collects as many images every three and a half days. There’s a new way to miss great photographs: they can be buried forever in the digital tsunami.
Many of us are now like those National geographic photographers. Almost without trying, we can end up with twenty-three thousand photos on our camera rolls. Unfortunately, we don’t have image editors to do the job of sorting, culling, and consideration. No one helps us figure out which shots “have legs” and stay interesting the longer we look at them; no one shows us which photographs say what we mean; and nobody tells us how to identify the best and leave out the rest. Many of us have also stopped printing our photos. Previously, we were limited by our physical photo albums, we had to choose which images to keep and which to leave out. “Editing is what turns a quantity of images from a heap into a whole,” photography critic AD Coleman once wrote, referring to the culling process. The cloud is large, so we don’t redact it. We live with our heaps.
Writing takes time. You cannot edit images while thinking; you have to do it by watching. The more photos you have, the more you need to look. Everyone is different, but this is how I worked in the movie days. Every other night, I would develop three rolls of Kodak Tri-X film, standing in front of my kitchen sink. With a magnifying glass turned on, I carefully examined the three contact sheets, each containing thirty-five frames. Looking at the thumbnail photos, I knew the cost of each to the nearest penny. Of these, I selected maybe fifteen photos, making working prints eight by ten. At first, I think they all showed the same promise. But then I would pin them on the wall for five days and watch them. Day after day, something mysterious was happening. Maybe three of the images would pull me further, forcefully, until I liked looking at them. The other twelve I would never need to see again.
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Taking five days to decide which images to keep – seems almost inconceivable now, in the age of the internet, where time spent on one thing always feels like it’s been stolen from something else. And it is difficult to find a digital equivalent for such a process. My iPhone camera roll is a chaos of the occasional pictures and videos, arranged in chronological order. I don’t use my phone for “serious” work as a photographer, but I rely on it for everything else: I use its camera for instant communication, taking notes, creating family memories and illustrations for my blog posts. Sometimes I take photos just to capture something that I find remarkable: the waterfall in my garden after the rain, twelve urubus flying in the sky at the same time. It’s all in there.
How do you decide what’s good, what to keep, what to delete? A first step is to look more carefully, with new eyes. Give each image time to breathe. We launch our camera apps for sentimental reasons (a cute puppy!), to signal status (look who we’re with!), for comfort vs. insecurity (does this shirt fit you?). But try to forget why you took the photos in the first place. Look for subversive photos that go beyond the intentions with which they were taken. Certain images will stir your soul and cause a rustle of recognition. Others will seem to touch on something deeper – a mystery, a meaning, a kind of subtle grace. (I once found a still life that looked like art in a china catalog.) A photo can freeze motion, or capture a gesture, or look like any picture you’re used to. Homework. Why does a particular color seem as familiar as a long-forgotten scent? Which photo makes you stop and stare the longest?
If you want, try swapping phones with a good friend who likes visual things of all kinds. Look on behalf of the other. A friend of mine used to make “matchbooks” – small two-by-three-inch prints of his photographs, arranged in a stack the size of a pack of cards and stuffed into a homemade box with open ends, like kitchen matches. When he struck up conversations with artists, or anyone else interested, and they said, “I’d love to see your portfolio,” he would show it to them on the spot. He listened to their comments, but also observed their body language. What images did people dwell on? Which caused changes in facial expressions or emotional murmurs? For a few minutes, someone else can be your image editor.
Looking is more than just noticing the visual qualities of a photograph. It is also giving yourself the time to feel. Not long ago I decided to go through my own camera roll, mine some gold, and a few images stood out. In one, a woman in dark clothing stands ankle-deep in the Pacific, gazing out to sea; the gray clouds are pearlescent with light and the colors of the sky, sea and sand change in discernible shades from blue to green to brown. Although you couldn’t see it in the photo, the beach was deserted for miles in both directions. The air and water were cool. We had gone to California so that I could meet his parents and see the landmarks of his life from childhood. She liked this beach because there was usually no one there. We had to walk.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but taking the picture was mildly transgressive of me: she didn’t like having her picture taken. And the photograph also shows an end. Just like you can’t force a photo to work when it doesn’t, you can’t force people to like you when they don’t, and soon after the photo was taken, we parted ways. . As I got older, I learned a new trick: instead of crying, be grateful. I had a special year with a woman who had been my dream girl. It’s awesome ?
Put “woman looking at the sea” into Google Images, and you’ll get a lot of results. It is not a unique visual pattern. But photography is never truly generic. Even if an image looks like the ones many others have made, it remains stubbornly specific. Ultimately, specificity is part of the subversiveness of photography; a photograph can never truly be allegorical. You are you, and your images are yours, and what you bring to a photograph is not separate from it.
So that’s what to look for. Scroll through your scroll and find the images that please your eyes and touch your heart and stir your feelings because you are you. If your photo library is big enough, those images will be there. From time to time you will find a gift, a masterpiece, at least for you.