Is It Ever Good Enough?

When it comes to deciding what makes a good photograph, the audience will always make that decision.
When it comes to deciding what makes a good photograph, the audience will always make that decision.

Ever wonder about what it takes to make a great photograph? Well, join the club. There is no question that photographers, at their core, are shameless dreamers. They constantly dream of that photograph, the one that will set them apart from others, the one that will surely bring recognition for hours of tireless devotion to their craft. Countless times a day the topic so expertly depicted by Émile Zola in his 1886 novel “The Masterpiece,” is played in the minds of photographers all over the world. In his work, Zola presented us with an artist who, in his own mind, found it impossible to live up to his own imagined potential. Nothing he did was good enough to be called great, or lead to the immortality he so desperately envisioned. That the artist drove a few people crazy in the process (not to mention himself) was a given, and no matter how good his work was in the eyes of critics and observers, the artist always found it lacking. Something, something impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty, was missing. Frustration reigned, and professional emptiness was right there by its side.

But Zola, in his genius, also provided us with the other side of the coin. That is, with the life of an artist who very early in his career created his greatest work and who went to live a long, unhappy life trying to unsuccessfully reproduce his early achievement. Critical greatness visited him before he felt he had achieved the pinnacle of his art; his sudden, and early acclaim condemning him to a life of denied recognition past his initial masterpiece. Nothing he did was to be as good, or memorable, as that earlier work, and the voices in his head never ceased to remind him of his lifelong descent from that early, momentary glory. It speaks to Zola’s greatness that he was able to represent so vividly the many, and often conflicting emotions that live inside an artist’s mind.

And so it seems to be the case today with photographers and their work. The Internet is full of tales of photographers stating that they went out on a project and took thousands of photographs, but at best, they only liked a handful of them. The rest? Just not good enough, or memorable enough. Ask any photographer to pick a photo that they would consider to be their masterpiece (apart from Steve McCurry and his Afghan Girl), and you will witness human contortions that would put Cirque du Soleil to shame. No, we’re not a happy lot, or to put it better, we’re not a very satisfied lot. That great photo is out there, and if it takes a lifetime to find it, that’s OK with us. And what about that magnificent photo you took that everyone seems to like so much? Sure, it was good, but not the best. The best is still out there, hidden in plain sight, and there’s no time to waste in our never-ending chase. In the 1964 words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when describing how he could tell something had crossed the threshold into the seedy, we tell ourselves that “I’ll know it when I see it.” And even when our eyes have seen so much over the years, the idea that we will recognize our masterpiece when we see it continues to dominate our photographic minds. Like Zola’s protagonists, we convince ourselves that this is a decision for us to make, when all along, and in keeping with the nature of any art, it is always a decision for the audience to make. Like Justice Stewart, they will know it when they see it, and there’s not much an artist can do aside from trying to create the best work possible everyday of his or her life.  I guess Zola figured this out almost 130 years ago.

 

A Visually Chaotic Order

Friends enjoy the magnificent view out of the second floor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Friends enjoy the magnificent view out of the second floor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Service attendant at one of the many help desks inside the Washington, DC Convention Center.
Service attendant at one of the many help desks inside the Washington, DC Convention Center.
Man dines alone at the Ceviche bar at the trendy Oyamel restaurant downtown Washington, DC.
Man dines alone at the Ceviche bar at the trendy Oyamel restaurant downtown Washington, DC.
A bride appears to be running late for her photoshoot inside the National Portrait Gallery.
A bride appears to be running late for her photoshoot inside the National Portrait Gallery.

I will be the first to admit that today’s post has somewhat of a random quality to it. In fact, that’s precisely my goal. You see, I have come to believe that most of the beauty of life has to do precisely with this randomness concept–the multitude of seemingly disconnected activities that characterize our everyday living. For lack of a better term, I like to refer to this phenomena as the chaotic order of society. Everyone pursuing his or her own activities totally different from that of others, but in some strange way, in an orderly, life-synchronous way. Yes, it all kind of falls together quite nicely, even if at first impression these activities appear to be ricocheting all over the place. Contemplation, stress, joy, and pain all seem to come together as if by necessity and disorderly design.  For some, this sense of uncontrolled living is the root of all problems in society; for others, it is nothing but randomness beauty, a symphony orchestra tuning their instruments before the greatest performance of their lives.

Is this what fascinates so many street photographers out there? Perhaps, and while I wouldn’t dare pretend to be speaking for this community, there’s got to be something in this chaotic order of our human ecosystem that proves to be irresistible to so many of these photographers. That something is there, and it always is, in an endless succession of juxtaposing micro-events that is both chaotic and orchestrated. To be able to witness them is pure joy, a confirmation that whatever occupies us in our daily lives is intrinsically intertwined into a larger, colorful quilt that is more obvious when observed from a distance. Remember the last time you sat down to relax and to engage in a little “people watching?” I’m sure that the world around you acquired a somewhat different dimension, an unexplainable revelation that highlighted everything you’ve been missing when looking at life through a panoramic lens. Contrary to the old expression about the devil being in the details, for those who aim to feel the pulse of that chaotic order out there, heaven is what lies in the details. A bride’s hurried steps on her way to a museum photoshoot, a lonely man sitting at a restaurant, friends looking out of a window, and a lone public servant waiting for someone to ask her a question. Details. Different worlds. One fabric. Beauty.

 

Are People Necessary For Good Urban Photography?

While I prefer to photograph people in urban environments, sometimes the emptiness of a scene is what makes the photograph.
While I prefer to photograph people in urban environments, sometimes the emptiness of a scene is what makes the photograph.
I often wonder whether we like seeing people in photographs because they enhance our ability to relate to the scene.
I often wonder whether we like seeing people in photographs because they enhance our ability to relate to the scene.

I have to admit that just about every time I go out with my cameras in any city, it is people scenes that I am after.  I think this is probably true of just about every street photographer out there, and even when I do not consider myself a street photographer in the strictest sense of the term, I can totally sympathize with the impact (or sense of wonderment) that people bring to a photograph.  What can I say?  It’s all pretty much a matter of personal preference, and personal means that everyone will have a slightly different opinion about this.

Having said that, I do think that people add an additional dimension to our interpretation of a photograph.  If anything, they make these photographs a bit less flat, less three-dimensional in our heads.  Human nature also makes us identify with people in photographs.  If they are looking in a particular direction, so do we.  We feel the weight of anything they carry, the sadness in their expressions, and the love in their eyes.  Their emotions, real or imagined, become our emotions.  We try to see through their eyes, to relive the scene as we imagine they lived it when the photograph was taken.  It becomes personal in a way that an empty scene will have a hard time emulating.  It is the magic of the still photograph and the reason why so many of us love this art form.

Double Takes

Looking in or looking out?  Sometimes it is hard to say.  Leica M9, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
Looking in or looking out? Sometimes it is hard to say. Leica M9, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.

This happens a lot.  You are walking down the street and suddenly, out of the blue, something catches your eye and you just can’t help but to look.  Granted that in many cases these neck-twisting impositions involve something bordering on perverted, but this is not what I’m talking about here.  No, what I’m referring to are those incredible visual curiosities that break our train of thought, or at the very least stand out from their seemingly mundane surroundings in such a way that it becomes virtually impossible for us to ignore them.  In fact, these visual curiosities are what most of us tend to remember about a certain street, or alleyway, or neighborhood.  These visual landmarks become the mileposts of our lives, the stuff of memories that place us in a particular place on a particular time.  They are life’s double takes, the kind of memorable visual events we don’t have to struggle to remember.  In their quiet, detached, and unassuming way, they become the story of our lives–the record of where we were and how far we have come.  A mental album of our individual journeys.

Taking A Break

Harpers Ferry day hikers enjoy a well-deserved rest while enjoying the warming light of a panoramic window. Leica M9, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.

Taken a break lately?  Feeling guilty about it?  These days we seem to be living the rare phenomena of feeling guilty every time we disengage from our gadgets and the long arm of our daily work lives.  As personal life and work gradually seem to be merging into some kind of hybrid existence, feelings of anxiety seem to always be near the surface of our emotional makeup.  Is is as if that nauseating feeling we tend to get every Sunday night when we start thinking of having to go to work the next morning has moved to earlier in the day, if not all the way back to Saturday altogether.  Emails, text messages, and voicemails chase us with a precision that would make the CIA envious.

But there’s hope, at least in places like Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  A couple on a day hike enjoying a glorious day by a window, never checking their cellphones, too busy in conversation, and too busy in the moment.  A simple reminder of what life used to be like once and what it could still be if we never allowed those fleeting moments to merely pass us by unattended.