By Vincent Versace
Complicated equipment and light reflectors and various other items of hardware are enough, to my mind, to prevent the birdie from ever coming out.
— Henri Cartier-Bresson
What is the shape of a name?
We are the landscape of all we have seen.
— Isamu Noguchi
Creating an image is like writing your name in water. The act of writing is there but simply cannot be seen. Only the water is seen and the ripples felt. A photograph is such a thing, the ripple of how the photographer was moved moves the viewer in the same way, as if he and not the viewer was there when the image was captured. Photography should not be about simply taking photographs; it should be about simply being taken by them. It is about allowing yourself to be consumed so completely and totally that the decisive moment pulls you through the lens and the image is captured along the way. From head to toe, mind, body, and spirit—everything that is you must be engaged, all creative cylinders firing at once and as one. Or, as it is referred to in Japanese Zen Buddhism, being in a state of Shibumi: the act of thoughtful thoughtless thought. Doing the right thing in the moment without consciously thinking about the doing the right thing. It is a state of grace.
It is in this state of grace that photography becomes not about merely looking but about seeing, because to just look is simply a visual experience, while seeing, on the other hand, is a creative process. Seeing is believing, and not, as we have been told, the other way around.
The question is, “How do we make the leap from looking to seeing and from taking to being taken by our pictures?” The answer exists at this very moment within us; it is as much a part of us as breathing. We need to approach the way we learn the same way we live—poetically and not rhetorically.
Play a game with me for a moment. I want you to say out loud, to no one in particular, “Hi, my name is ____,” saying your full name, and then pause for a moment. Now after you’ve done that, this time, again out loud say, “Hi, my name is Izzy Smith.” Unless your name is Izzy Smith, you should observe a difference in the way those two statements feel. The former statement most likely felt “right” while the latter felt empty.
The difference is that the former statement—your name—is inhabited, and the latter statement—a made-up name—is just some words, verbs and nouns with no meaning to you whatsoever. Your name is your personal icon, the icon of everything you have experienced up to that moment. Another way to look at it is that your name has a shape and when you say it, it contains everything you have ever said and done. The shape of your name reflects the landscape of all of your experiences and all you have seen and felt, every lesson of your life expressed whenever you utter it.
We live life in a total or global way. Our lives are not determined by what happens but by how we react to what happens. We are not defined by what life brings to us, but rather by the attitude we bring to life. If we have a positive attitude, that positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, positive events, and positive outcomes. It is a catalyst, a spark that creates extraordinary results. The images we create are a reflection of how we live our lives.
We experience life poetically, not rhetorically. Poetry is the language of heightened emotion, poetry is the form of expression we use when conversational language cannot even begin to contain what we feel. Poetry is representational in its symbolism, where few words can mean an immense thing. Whereas when we express things rhetorically, the words and symbolism we choose become presentational; we use many words to describe a single thought or thing. A poetic approach is expansive, dynamic, and felt within us, while the rhetorical approach is constrictive, static, cramped and, at best, a literary event.
But life is not a literary event. It is dynamic and not static. It is not made up of series of events that occurred in a linear manner that add up to what we are. Life is all about the way in which the experiences interact with each other in a nonlinear way, and that interaction causes the poem that is who we are. Just like a beach is made up of grains of sand, every experience we have is a grain that makes up the beach of our lives. They interact and move and shift, changing the landscape of who we are.
A Grain of Sand Is Not Made Up of a Beach
A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?
— Ernst Haas
A picture speaks a thousand words.
If the above statement is true, something I have come to personally believe to be self-evident in its truth, I would suggest, then, that a photograph is a visual poem. The greatest of which are ones that move us the way the photographer was moved when he clicked the shutter. So if we operate under this premise, I would argue that we should approach our formalized learning of photography in the same manner we approach life—poetically instead of rhetorically. More specifically, I am talking about the way we approach learning how to express our creativity within the images we create.
F.A. Porsche said, “If you analyze the function of an object, its form often becomes obvious. Form follows function.” The word photography literally means “to write with light,” and the function of the object of photography, the photographic image, that which we have written with light, is to emotionally move the viewer of the image being looked at. If this is the function of photography, then the form of photography must be a poetic one. Therefore, if form follows function and the function of photography is to create visual poems, then the images we create are a reflection of how we live our lives. It is therefore incumbent upon us to learn how to express ourselves poetically visually. The problem, however, is that traditionally when we are taught about creativity in photography we are taught in a rhetorical, or granular, manner and not in a poetic, or global, manner.
Basically, there are two ways to approach learning: granularly and globally. I’m not talking about the learning of the lessons of life, which we call “experience” or, as the Reverend Knight put it, “Experience—the thing you get 10 seconds after you needed it.” Those lessons are by their very nature total, or global, events. What I am discussing is specifically the way we “school” ourselves when we want to learn how to do something.
When it comes to this type of learning, the way we are traditionally taught is in the rhetorical or granular way, i.e., “Do these steps this way and you will get this result when doing this thing this way.” Lots of words used for the explanation of a small grain of knowledge.
The problem inherent with this approach to both learning and teaching is when we learn in a granular way, what we learn tends to stay attached to the experience we had when we learned it. The knowledge we gained rarely travels into other things; it is confined to the doing of things exactly like or very similar to the first time we learned it. If we are not careful when we learn this way, what will happen is things that are simply technique become revered as if they are an art form unto themselves. Also, the images that are created by following this path tend to be derivative, repetitive, and not at all innovative.
What further occurs after we put ourselves through this type of learning is that we hit the glass ceiling and gilded cage of photography—the perfection of technique to the point were we can always take and create pretty pictures, technically excellent but somewhat sterile in their beauty. We find ourselves doing the same things over and over again, expecting the result to change. We become frustrated with our work and ourselves, we are tourists within our own creativity, defined by a set of arbitrary rules that tell us all about how a thing should look. We don’t create the images that we are capable of creating because the rules that define us say we shouldn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, in the beginning we need to learn things in grains of thought, but from the outset of our journey we need to be open to something more. It is being open and receptive to that something more from the beginning of our granular learning experience that will show us how we break through the glass ceiling of creative stagnation. It is this beginning openness that is the pathway to connecting more deeply with the world—both within and without—and allow that connection to be held like an expectant breath within our images.
A Beach Is Made Up of Grains of Sand
Every thing you need to know you will know, when you need to know it if you choose to simply be present at the time you first experience it.
— Tad Z. Danieleweski
Let’s approach the poetics of learning to create another way. In fractal geometry there is concept called chaos theory. Very simply put, chaos theory posits that there is order and great beauty in what looks to be total chaos; if we look closely enough at the randomness around us, patterns will start to emerge.
So rather than trying to fit all the things we learn into a neat set of ordered dogma, why not allow them simply to be just what they are, a fact that is what it is, nothing more and nothing less? The best way I know to accomplish this is to choose to simply be present at the time you learn or discover something new.
So what does being present mean? It means that you simply choose to show up with no preconceptions and you allow yourself to be open to the experience of what you learn when you learn. It means that you choose to operate with the assumption that even though you realize that what you have learned has specific significance to the lesson at hand, it may have the same or greater significance to things you have yet to experience. It means approaching learning as if it’s a giant cloud of knowledge or an infinitely expansive beach of ideas in which things are always in flow.
A beach is made up of grains of sand; a grain of sand is not a beach. When we learn things, they are grains of thought—pieces of knowledge—that if kept within the confines of where and when we learned them, we would do little with them. If, however, we allow them to pile up and interact with each other, we will come to a greater, more global way of seeing. If we allow the things that we learn to simply be—to exist in our minds without being anchored to one way of doing them—they can interact, collide, and perhaps create something bigger. If you allow yourself this level of presence, that being to simply show up, what will start to occur is that everything you need to know you will come to know when you need to know it. Because out of the apparent randomness, the patterns of knowledge will form as the need for them arises.
For example, I teach two techniques for retouching skin (You can watch the excerpts here below this paragraph or the full lessons can be found at Kelby Training Online, and on my tutorial DVD, “Retouching on a Laptop: How to Retouch to a Face in 15 Minutes”). The first is a technique to remove unwanted redness or ruddiness from skin tone, and the second to add texture back to skin once all of the blemishes have been removed by being blurred. In Chapter 4 of my book Welcome to Oz, on pages 119-120, (click here to download the PDF of those pages) we learned how to diminish contrast, or “gray up” an image by clipping a curve to help replicate aspects of the way a lens actually expresses the light it collects.
This technique is used in my retouching work in almost 100% of my portraits. But I have an image of a yellow orchid that has a green cast and a photograph of an actress that was shot on black and white film where I slightly overexposed (I’ve been known to do that from time to time) and the highlights are blown out. So how do I remove the green cast and how do I rebuild the blown highlight?
These techniques are used in almost 100% of my fine art and landscape work. Which beg these questions: what is different—the technique I used or the image that I used the technique on—and is there really a difference between images that are portraits, fine art, and landscapes? In the world of creativity, two plus two does not equal four, it equals fish. It will most likely be made of four parts that when done will create one thing. But the one thing that was created will cause many more feelings than was ever conceived by the creative who made the piece of art in the first place.
Confucius said, “It is from the grain of sand a pearl comes.” It is from a grain of knowledge the pearl of wisdom comes. But that pearl is created by the friction of colliding with other grains of thought, which cause the many layers that surround that grain that ultimately becomes the pearl. One thought leads to an experience that, over time, causes many thoughts that ultimately becomes a way of doing things.
There is a revolution in photography happening. We are witnessing it now; the digital image for the first time allows anyone onto the pathway to creative greatness. A place where impossible is merely an opinion, an opinion that is held not by the viewer of the image but by the creator of that image. Which means that personal imagination is then the only limitation. It is important to not merely focus on technique for technique’s sake, but to discover what it means to see rather than merely look. It is in that direction that you will come full circle and find the voice within you that yearns to be heard and needs to be heard. Once you discover that technique is merely a detail—a consideration, nothing more—then in that moment the voice within you, the visual poet who fell in love with photography, will be free to create images that will change the world of those who view them.
Become a beach that is made not just of grains of knowledge but of ever-changing pearls of wisdom. Create images where what you felt is written in the water of the poetic moment and the viewer of the images is forever taken by your image as you were.
I invite you to give yourself permission to become that photographer. We are all waiting to believe with you in what you see.