Sometimes I think I could, live on ice cream I mean. It wouldn’t be at all healthy. I make my own ice cream and I know that even using all natural ingredients it isn’t something you could live on, but I’m not talking about the health issues. I’m talking about the tedium of it. Long before type two diabetes kicked in you would face an open revolt from your taste buds. Unless you are totally weird you will have to admit that a diet of nothing but ice cream would become sickening after a short while. You would soon start craving something that wasn’t sweet and icy. That is how we are made.
I shot the above image almost ten years ago. Pretty photograph I think. Lesotho has no shortage of pretty things to photograph. Pretty time of day and a pretty storm. Very pretty mountain. I thought the veldt flowers were also pretty. The pretty stream in the foreground helped the composition as did the pretty golden light on the pretty rock formations on the ridge. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Photography is an immensely powerful medium. It is capable of saying so much. As photographers we can communicate ideas and emotions that exist beyond the reach of language. We can surprise, confound, delight, confuse, inform and educate. Why then, with such a range available to us, do we keep repeating over and over, “Look, how pretty”? Why do we insist on turning a five course meal into five consecutive flavors of ice cream?
You don’t believe me? Go take a look at the big hitters on Instagram and then tell me I’m lying. Sure, there is a tremendous amount of fantastic ability and amazing images on display, but lets be honest here, there is also a lot of ice cream. I recently looked at one account on Instagram that consists of 350 images of a very attractive woman doing a variety of flattering yoga poses in beautiful locations. I began scrolling through them but by the twentieth scoop, sorry photograph, my teeth started to ache and I was done. I cannot look at 350 images that say the same thing. “Look at me I am pretty and I go to pretty places and wear pretty clothes.” Fascinating in a perverse kind of way I suppose but quickly boring.
It’s not just on Instagram, it’s everywhere. Go to a landscape centric website or pick up a book of landscape photography and you will easily see what I mean. Highly stylized images that follow a few simple rules. Shoot in the early morning around sunrise and in the evening around sunset. Compositions should follow the classic instructions of the rule of thirds, leading lines, balance, not placing objects in the centre and so on. I’m not saying these rules should all be chucked out or that they are all bad at all times. These rules are all great if you want to take a pretty photograph. As I said, I like pretty, just as I like ice cream, but not for every meal.
I photographed the artist above just last week. I am pleased with the image although I wouldn’t call it pretty. Mbongeni is a successful, talented and hard working artist. His studio is in End Street downtown Johannesburg, a rough area. I was stopped by Metro police outside the building and they didn’t want me to hang around. They told me it wasn’t safe and even they were nervous being there. Mbongeni’s studio is big, cold and sparsly furnished. As I walked in this large man greeted me with a warm smile and strong handshake. He was bouncing around half naked working on three large canvasses simultaneously. To be honest I was a little intimidated but drawn to him at the same time. He has an engaging personality and took the time to help me get a photograph that we liked. I feel it communicates something of our encounter and hope it shows his confidence, warmth, eccentricity and dreaminess. It places him in the context of his art and where he works.
So what am I trying to illustrate here? Actually its more of a suggestion, something you might want to try, whether you are a full time photographer, enthusiastic amateur or just someone having fun with a camera. Before you shoot try the following.
Stop. Don’t take a photo quite yet, look around and absorb what’s around you. Take a deep breath and slow things down. Breath out slowly, perhaps close your eyes for a few seconds then open them again and be still. Smell, listen, feel yourself standing in the place you are about to photograph. Notice the temperature and if there is a breeze on your skin and in your hair. Now look into yourself and see how you feel. Are you excited, nervous, anxious, agitated? What is coming to you from where you are? Observe your feelings and try to determine what is producing them. How do you feel about where you are and what is going on? How can you convey that feeling visually? Now start to plan. Think about how to place objects in you composition, what exactly you will frame, what angle of view will you choose, how close or far from the subject should you be, how deep or shallow the depth of field? How can you emphasize the things that help convey what you feel and how can you minimize those things that distract from your message? Above all else determine your message. Surely you have more to say than “Hey that’s pretty”.
Oh and as a reward stop off on the way home and buy an ice cream. You deserve it.