Photographing to See

“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” – Garry Winogrand

Perfect Practice

Creative pursuit, whether art or science, is a method for improving the brain. If “Deciding Better” means developing more accurate models of reality to guide choices, then the getting better must involve more than just acquisition and reflection.

The best practice for an activity is the activity itself. You don’t expect to become a better tennis player by playing the tuba. You become better at tennis either by practicing the game or breaking the skills and capacities of the game into components and improving each. There’s then practice to put the components back together into an improved tennis game.

Simply playing the game over and over will get you only so far. At some point there’s more to be gained by breaking down the activity into component parts and spending focused time on each one. Jogging is nothing like tennis, but ithelps a tennis player by building endurance for long games. Jogging avoids the risk of injury from fatigue that would come from playing long sessions of the game over and over.

The Practice of Art

If you’re a photographer, you have probably heard the advice that you should always carry a camera. Usually the reason given is that without a camera, you can’t do what a photographer does, thus you can’t be a photographer. I’ve heard similar directives to always carry a pen and a notebook in order to be a writer.

The advice is fair enough. But I believe it’s backwards. Rather than bringing a camera in order to be a photographer, you first must to decide to be a photographer and therefore need a camera. Always going out with a camera easily becomes just a habit. After all, I have nice cell phone camera capable of taking higher quality images than my first DSLR of a decade ago. I pull up the photo roll on the phone and mostly see images of food I’ve prepared or been served in restaurants plus snapshots of friends and family. I don’t see photographs

I take out my notebook and create hastily scribbled thoughts and half formed concepts. That’s not the art of writing and it’s not even practicing.

I wasn’t practicing to be a photographer when I captured images of my bread last week. I wasn’t practicing to be a writer when I wrote, “Scientists ask why. Science is a long term project to understand a problem or phenomenon.” in my notebook last week. I was cooking, eating, socializing and reflecting. Capturing ideas is not practicing. I was more the tennis player with a tuba.

The Nature of Practice

What did Winogrand mean when he said that he took photographs in order to find out what something will look like photographed?

I believe he was making the simple point that his intention was to be a photographer and learn what reality looked like reduced to a photographic print. And he learned through his career. Since he shared the images with us, we can look at them and also learn what the world looks like in a photograph. We too can learn how the world that Gary Winogrand saw looks in a photograph by looking at his work.

If he meant that he was after some simple transformation of reality into photograph, his photos would be of little interest to anyone, to Winogrand himself or to me. I believe that he meant to say that he took photographs to help him perceive the world in a way he couldn’t just by looking. Image capture is nothing more than framing and isolating a particular angle of view. You and I know there are tons of technical details, but they are all secondary to where you stand and where you point the camera. The first step is seeing and the second step is finding out what the world looks like in a photograph.

Can you learn to see without taking photographs or creating some kind of record, visual or written? Of course you can, but the feedback of creating is an enormous aid to learning. Without a camera the image never exists independently to see if you were right. It’s too easy to fool yourself into thinking you have the clear insight without the evidence of the art.

To learn to see as a photographer requires a decision to practice seeing. You have to put on the tennis shoes, choose the tennis racket and get to the court. It’s deciding to decide to learn what the world looks like in a photograph.

Perfect Practice

Vincent Versace, the photographer and teacher quoted Vince Lombardi in his Welcome to Oz : “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. You first have to practice at practicing.”"

We’ve learned from cognitive neuroscience that we can only do one thing at a time with our brains. Intention and planning rule the sensory and motor systems and squeezes everything else out. I recognize this as choosing to be present and active in the task. I’m not going to be photographing or writing while driving to the mall or surfing the web. Seeing with intention is a focused brain activity. I must choose to look..

More than this, to be a photographer, you have to choose to see what things might look like in a photograph. In addition to choosing to see, you have to choose the camera and you have to choose what to see. The two go together. If I choose to see African wildlife since I did after all book a safari and travel to Kenya, then I’ll need some quality telephoto lenses. If I choose to see what the streets of Florence look like on a rainy day, then a light and flexible camera is going to be my choice.

Searching for Questions

Occasionally, very rarely, I know what I’m after. I’m not on assignment for Geographic. I have no gallery looking for my characteristic work to place with clients. I’m just practicing to learn what things look like in photographs. I’m no different from Winogrand in the aim of photographing.

The tool can dictate the subject of the lesson. I have too many cameras. My excuse to my wife? “They do different things.” If I go out to see what things look like with my DSLR, tripod and macro lens, I’m going to see small things. And I’ll find out what small things look like in a photograph. If I drive downtown with my compact mirrorless camera that has the flip up, waist level screen and put a vintage Leica lens on it, I’m out to see what’s interesting at a human scale in a city. Like a runner who competes in both long and short distance events, I’m limiting myself by not focusing on seeing in a particular way. I respond to contexts, seeing where I am rather than going where I can see.

Artists and scientists like to set themselves problems to aid with this goal of focused learning. You should take Winogrand’s approach and find out what a thing looks like photographed. Keep in mind that it’s easier to get going when the question is more specific than “What does the world look like when photographed?” If you try to learn about a particular thing: a mountain, people in the city, or the suburban landscape, then the direction is clear and the components that need work become more obvious.

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