Be Water My Friend

I was reminded of the Bruce Lee quote ‘Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water if you put water in the cup it becomes the cup and water can flow or it can crash’ last week. I was in California and had expectations of what I was going to photograph. I believe that it was Ansel Adams spoke about previsualization, having a sense of what the image is going to be before you make the exposure. I think that Ansel was probably previsualizing as he stood in front of what he was going to photograph. I on the other hand was guilty of previsualizing from thousands of miles away.

As I stood looking at the pounding surf, 3 feet above a normal low tide, that hid the rocks that I had imagined photographing for the previous 2 years it would have been a natural reaction to be frustrated. I’m not sure why I wasn’t but I just let it go, enjoyed the magnificence of the fury of the Pacific Ocean, and then moved on to photograph other things. I don’t think that anticipating and being prepared to get a specific shot is a bad thing but it is bad not to be flexible enough to recognize other opportunities that come your way. While they might not be what you’d prepared for they could be equally, or more, enjoyable.

Beware The Sleepers!

Nixon_141209_6325

I was photographing along the California coast last week, something that I’d wanted to do for a while but had never managed to connect the dots and make happen. Unfortunately I didn’t pick a good week for the trip, given that Northern California was experiencing the worst storm they’d had in 5 years. I was hoping to tick off one of my photographic goals and get some good photographs at Bowling Ball beach. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. I did learn a lot and got a few images that I thought were okay given the circumstances.

One of the things that threw me a little was the unpredictability of the waves on the coast. Normally I like to get close to the foreground element with a wide angle lens which often puts me in the water. Not a big deal, I’ve been around the ocean my entire life I know how the game works and respect the ocean like I would a wild animal. You have to pay attention at all times otherwise you may get bit! Here on the East Coast the waves seem to be generally predictable this was also true on the California coast in that every 5 th of 6 th wave would be huge and where there was rocks or beach for the previous few waves there would be a foot or more of water. It was quite unsettling and I eventually retreated to the relative safety of the cliffs and a long lens.

I thought that this was something related to the storm and an unusual storm surge until I spotted I sign that described ‘Sleepers’ – waves that were much larger that the previous ones which could easily knock you off your feet and cause you to be swept out to sea. Reading the sign you could easily think that it was a little alarmist but have experienced the waves up close and personal there’s definitely cause for concern when photographing at the beach in this area.

Friday Inspiration: Arnold Newman

Stravinsky

I was prompted to look at Arnold Newman’s photographs this week. Arnold Newman is widely thought of as the ‘Father of Environmental Potraiture’, contributing photographs to all major publications from Life to Scientific American and everything in between. He got his start in portraiture by taking photographs of artists. At the time the artists he photographed were neither rich nor famous and Newman himself was an unknown, honing his craft. His approach of using the camera to explore the world of the person he’s photographing, to show something of their character by placing them in their surroundings began with his work with the artists.

He has said that a good portrait must first be a good photograph. For me the most iconic of his photographs is that of Stravinsky shown above. Stravinsky propping his head on his arm neatly echoes the way that the lid of the piano is propped open. It is a strongly graphic, minimal image that appeals to me greatly. Looking at many of his other portraits you start to see how he has stripped away all but the essentials that he needs to tell the story of the artist, celebrity or statesman.

An exhibition of his work ‘Arnold Newman – Masterclass’ is now showing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Fransisco. If you’re not able to Make it to the show you can watch a gallery tour given by the shows curator William Ewing here. There’s also a catalog to accompany the exhibition that can be had here.

Finally check out the interview with Newman below for insights into how he worked and a behind the scenes look at how some of his most famous images were made.

Friday Inspiration: Bryant Austin

sperm-whale

I stopped in at The Focus Gallery recently and while I was there saw the image above created by Bryant Austin. The image was awe inspiring – ~ 5ft x 20ft. Truly immersive and a fitting presentation for images of the largest mammals on the planet.

Austin, a California based photographer, has spent over 10 years working out how to take compelling photographs of whales – images that could really move someone, that reflect the experience of being in the water with the massive mammals. To achieve this goal he evolved his approach, from shooting off the coast in the US to more tropical settings, the gear he used, from film to digital, from fish-eye lenses to traditional portrait lenses and built computers able to handle the resulting files. His talk at Google that I’ve included below is a fascinating insight into what it takes to pursue a dream and what you can achieve if you’re prepared to go all in.

Check out the gallery of Austin’s work here and click here for a book of his work.

Becoming A First Class Noticer

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to ‘see pictures’. People will tell you that ‘pictures are all around us’ and yet I find that few are able to consistently find them. Why is that?

Personally I feel as though I go through my day with blinkers on, really only paying attention to the things that I need to pay attention to in the specific moment. The things on the periphery are ignored in an effort to get onto whatever is next as expediently as possible.

This is a sentiment that I found echoed in ‘Sketch‘ in which the author, France Belleville-Van Stone has this to say:

Most of us have acquired, with time, the capacity to “tune out” the things around us. This faculty to conveniently ignore the things that don’e “matter” allows us to live without being constantly bombarded with visual stimuli. We need to be able to drive or walk without being distracted by the slightest object in our field of vision.

As adults we have trained ourselves to disregard the landscape around us in order to keep a certain focus, that is, where are we going, how we are going to answer questions during an upcoming interview, how not to trip in those brand new heels so as to avoid public embarrassment.

Jay Maisel seems to have this problem of seeing licked licked. He always carries his camera with him and is always looking for, and finding, pictures. How does he do that? He seems to have retained a child like curiosity in everything around him.

For me this enhanced way of seeing is most easily achieved when I put myself in new situations, where things are strange or scary or strange and scary. It’s amazing to me how I seem to notice everything when I’m in potentially dangerous situations – balancing precariously on rocks in the ocean before dawn, walking along the beach when it’s so foggy I can hear but can’t see the breaking waves or walking through a forest in the near dark hoping that I’m still on the trail. In these circumstances I have a heightened sense of awareness, time slows down, and I can pay attention to an enormous amount of detail. Interestingly this sense of awareness persists, so that I find that I ‘see’ pictures when I’m on my way home in a way that I didn’t an hour or so earlier.

Have you experienced this sensation? How do you get into the ‘picture taking, seeing zone’?