John Szarkowski once said, that photography was like poetry.
All writers use the same words that everyone else uses. They all use dictionaries which have the same words in them – in alphabetical order. All they have to do is put them in the right order, – that’s all there is to it!
Photography is just like that.
We all use the same “words” [compositional elements], and our “words” are readily available to all of us, in fact they are almost thrown at us, constantly.
All we as photographers have to do is to put those “words” – those compositional elements – together in the right order.
Its really quite simple.
And when we get that order right – it can be a truly sublime experience. We may not know why, it just is.
This is the struggle for all artists, not just photographers, to find that perfect composition, that perfect arrangement of parts that creates something intangible, something that is so much more than just the sum of its parts.
Ansel Adams once said that when he took a photograph, he was trying to convey what he felt at that moment in time, to create something that actually was not there, to create from within and not simply to take from the external.
To understand this a bit better…
There are soooo many photographs of Yosemite Valley online today. Probably millions of the damned things. Each photographer, myself included, used exactly the same “words” – the same compositional elements that Ansel Adams used. Yet 99.99% of the photographs of Yosemite are not even close to the incredible artistic beauty of Ansel’s work.
Because Ansel was not simply photographing a thing, he was always striving to convey his emotions at that point in time.
The rest of us see the Valley for the first time and we go “oooh, pretty, I think I will take a shot of that” – and that lack of regard for the true “art” behind photography is what dooms our images to mediocrity.
The true art of photography is not composition, or subject, or lighting, or processing, the true art of photography lies in the ability to communicate to another person our inner-most feelings through a visual medium.
And if we are really really lucky, we might manage to do exactly that a handfull of times in our lives.
And that is the struggle of the artist – the never ending search for that perfect moment, that perfect blend of elements, – the right “words” in the right order that transcends mere shape and form and speaks to the soul of the other person in ways that even they can not clearly explain.
That is our goal, but it certainly isn’t where we start.
We all start off making crap art. We make the art because of the need to express ourselves. Sure we might “just like taking pictures” – but underneath that, somewhere is our need to communicate. Its just that we don’t know it at that time.
So we take pictures of stuff, some of it is ok, most of it is rubbish, but we stick with it.
What we are doing in our early artistic years, is learning to “speak”, learning our “words”, – learning what works and what does not. Often our work is derivative because we mimic what we see around us, and even more often it is incredibly naive.
This is normal and natural. Its is the same for EVERYBODY.
Even Ansel Adams early work was shit.
The thing to understand is that making art is not a static process. No-one makes only good art. We try, we fail, we try again, we learn, we fail, we have a win, and then we fail again.
This is how life is.
As an artist you may never actually achieve that one great photograph. You may spend your whole life in search of it and never get it.
But being an artist is not about being perfect, but rather the struggle to be perfect.
I have been taking photographs for nearly 15 years now, and I am only now just beginning to really like the art that I produce, yet I am not satisfied with it. I know I can do better.
Because now after 15 years I know what it is that sets the great images apart from the tidal wave of mediocrity – it is the intent on the part of the photographer to communicate their feelings to the viewer.
But I didn’t know this 15 years ago. No-one does when they start – and that is because you have to learn it before you can know it. You have to grow as both a person and an artist.
It is this knowledge that is important for young artists to grasp. That the growth of the artist in each of us is the important thing, not the start point or the end point, but the constant progress,
As you grow as a person, so you grow as an artist. Never stop learning, never stop consuming everything you can about art. The more you learn the more you evolve, the closer you get to making that one perfect image.
And maybe, just maybe one day you will make that photograph.