A man with a vision …

My handful of readers already know that Brett Weston sits at the top of my list of admired photographers and influences.  A few days ago, I came across this book at the local used book store.

Brett Hawaii small

I already own a number of Brett monographs, but this is late work, and well printed as reproductions go.

The Hawaii book is available on the internet; there are even new copies available.  This copy is in very good condition and I got it at a steal!

A stunning use of silver gelatin!


Brett could have so easily suffered from the famous-father syndrome.  But he quickly found his own way, his own vision.  There have been articles written and exhibitions mounted – including the current one at the Amon Carter in Fort Worth, comparing Edward and Brett Weston.


But the revealing show was the one mounted by the Brett Weston Archive in 2008, entitled Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow.

“… looking for lines, shadows, shape and form…”


Capture or Create?

It’s the “vision thing”.

As a photographer, does one capture an image or create an image?

Either. Both.  What about using photography as art?

Photography can serve many functions. It can document, it can augment, it can illustrate, it can illuminate, it can interpret, it can witness, it can lie.

Which is right? None. All. Which is art? Potentially none. Potentially all.

Necessary caveat: I am hardly an expert or the last word on such as this, but it is something I’ve given a lot of thought to. It’s just my opinion. (In the next blog post, I’ll link to a much more profound and better written essay on how this works. Come back in a couple of days.)

Without revisiting the whole “Is photography art?” thing, I simply refer you to a post from about a year ago: https://silverdarkroom.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/yeah-but-is-it-art/

… summed up by photographer Ruth Bernhard who said that photography is an art if used by an artist. But even that distinction does not address whether or not a photographer has a vision.

As discussed in prior posts, many photographers wonder how to make their work different. “Everything has been photographed” (probably true), so how does one make a different, new picture of the same things already photographed?

In the prior two posts, I discussed fairly simple things such as getting a new angle on a scene, or moving in closer, etc. When you are at a location that has been photographed a zillion times, pretend that you are there with the photographer who took “the” picture, and then find a different way of photographing the same scene.

Have a vision. Vision is not the same thing as pre-visualization (or just visualization).

That’s easy for me to say. Yet, all of my photographic life I have had visions of pictures in my head that I couldn’t consistently get onto film (or sensor). Not specific images so much as a “look”. Often, I’ve tried to force the look onto photographs I was making, with some, but limited success. Now, in just the recent past, I have come to a few realizations.

I know of many photographers who are – whether consciously or unconsciously – essentially Ansel Adams wanabes. This is not a bad thing, necessarily. Many do perfectly competent work, they are more than happy with it, it satisfies them, and they are happy to show the work to others. Its just derivative. We all know photographers who think that shooting models, i.e., young, relatively attractive women, is what photography is all about. More power to them. Then there are the street people.

Please keep in mind that I am not denigrating straightforward landscape, documentary, street, or fashion and product photography; it is what dominates the medium. But to differentiate one’s work from all else out there, to be an artist rather than a recorder, one has to see things differently. And a start toward that process might be to make, rather than take photographs (an old cliché in its own right). This is simply how I am approaching this.

A while back, I looked at decades of work and determined that I did not ever have to make any of those pictures again. Not that I won’t, but I will not feel I’m missing something if I don’t. It’s not that the work was bad – some of it is very good if I say so myself – but I have got to make different work.

There needs to be color along with the black and white. I’ve mentioned Carl Weese’s comment before that black and white was mature in film but color is coming of age in digital. One can use one or the other. Use both. It’s not a religious argument.

I don’t believe that I need to seek out scenery or events to photograph. I am not really a landscape photographer. I’ve done it, will continue to do it, but it’s not my driving force. I can actually view a scene without thinking: “I need to photograph this.” I can travel without a camera. I had realized years (decades?) ago that I was not a portrait (or fashion) photographer or a “street” photographer; and I’ve done all of that at one time or another.

I am currently doing a documentary project photographing historic pipe organs: http://silverdarkroom.net/?page_id=279 and one of the challenges is finding that “different angle” and making some of the photographs more than just a recordation of the instruments or the churches being photographed. Since the project is for an archive, the recordation is necessary; but I get to make my own statement. A satisfying irony is that many of my more “artsy” shots have proved as or more popular with the audience of the project. Perhaps that’s because it is not what they’re used to seeing?

Documentary projects are not my “thing” either, although I’ve done some of my best work in this genre. The pipe organ project is satisfying because of my interest in the instruments. Likewise, the Texas Church Project in the prior decade allowed me to apply photography to my interests in architecture and history.

Most significantly, those vague images rolling around in my head have begun to gel. This is likely, or at least partly, attributable to my doing less of other photography, allowing my brain to focus on photographs I want to “make”, rather than the latest ones I’ve “taken”.

I’ve realized that photography for me needs to be a deliberate act. I do not carry a camera around all of the time, any more than my painter friends have a brush and canvas at the ever-ready.

So, the “new” images have to be done mostly in the studio. I need to set up and control everything, rather than “capturing” a scene (there will be exceptions). I’ve done very little studio work in my life, although I have the tools (lighting, backgrounds, etc.) I’m not talking about the usual, classic still lifes – the fruit and flowers, etc. It’s various things, usually ordinary things, but with a “look”. A vision. An “angle”.

Will it be completely new and original? Alas, no. (See prior post) What I want to do has been done before, to some extent – but not by me! A couple of my friends have said: “So, where are these new pictures?” Fair question. Not yet. Not ready for public consumption. At the SILVER exhibition last year, one of the comments I received was that the pictures I was showing were not what they were used to seeing from me. That was interesting to hear, but those photographs were transitional at best.

It’s a work in progress. I’m just an amateur. Just trying to make some art …

Get closer!

A well known quote by Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

There’s also the Ansel Adams adage: “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”

And of course, the mantra of real estate: “Location, location, location.”

In the previous blog post, I began this short series about making one’s photographs “different” from everyone else’s. This is a big problem for a lot of photographers, especially those still learning the craft. The common concern is that “everything has already been photographed”. Well, maybe, but as a painter friend of mine often says: “Yes, but not by you!”

It is near impossible to make a photograph that has not been done in some fashion before. There have been multiple billions of images made, and there are now photographs being made at a rate that would stagger the mind if it could even be measured.

I’ve been doing this for decades. (Let’s just leave it at that.) In true Murphy’s Law fashion, every time I have thought that I had a brilliant idea for a project, or even a single image that was going to be new and fresh, within a week or two I will see that image in a book or on the web or at a gallery. It never fails.

That could be discouraging. However, I always come back to that response of the painter: “… but not by you.” So, before we even get into the “vision thing”, a subject of yet a later post, let’s discuss what happens when you arrive in the field and are faced with that thing you wish to capture.

Look around!

Yes, when you are standing at “that” overlook at Yosemite, you have to take “that” picture. Where else are you going to stand? But this is an exception. Most of the time, you can move, or change angles, or turn around, even. This one thing might be enough to get your juices flowing.

Here’s two examples.

One of the photographs that I recently exhibited got more attention than the others. I arrived at the visitor center at Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson. It was a bright sunny May day, and the light outside the center made for interesting shadows.

Yes, I took the usual color snapshots, as above. But, while technically good, they are not unique pictures by any means. With black and white film, I began looking “smaller”, i.e., closer, and came up with this:


Years ago, at the beach just after sunrise, I was presented with this scene:

Nice enough, but just by moving a little closer and pointing the camera down, I got this photograph:


Get closer. Change the angle. Or just move.

Next post: more on the vision thing.

Has everything already been photographed?

Yes. Get over it.

More and more I see the lament on various on-line forums (fora?) that “everything has already been photographed.” The literal meaning of that is not the issue. It’s how does one create their own vision? How can one separate their work from all the rest?

Honestly, I don’t know exactly how to answer this dilemma. At least, not in a few simple tips that I can tell you. Some examples, perhaps?

Maybe it’s as simple as trying to find a different angle. When I was collaborating with other photographers documenting historic Texas churches, this became really apparent to all of us. We would arrive at a location; often 2 of us, but sometimes 3 or 4; and each make different photographs. Occasionally, really different.

When Mike Castles and I visited a remarkable church in Cooke County, we were both struck by the colorful trompe l’oeil painting, and simply recorded it from different angles.

Michael Castles



Sometimes, it’s finding that one “tree”, rather than taking in the whole “forest”. At a ruined building in Jack County, I took this fairly straight shot of the rotting building:


but Lee Carmichael made this picture:

Lee Carmichael


We all found the detail shots among the standard recordation shots of the entire buildings. Among a number of chestnuts of wisdom, there is the one about turning around 180 degrees after taking a picture, and looking at what’s in the opposite direction.

When I visited this historic Polish parish in Karnes County:


I came away with this photograph of a statue in the rear of the church for exhibition.


Then, there’s Robert Capa’s famous quote: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I’ll explore that in the next post.

Photostock – Art in the woods

Sorry to take so long to get back to the blog. I returned from Photostock about 10 days ago, and took a few days to rest. Then I attended the American Guild of Organists Regional Convention, and after that I needed a couple more days to rest. Not only do I need more rest time than I used to, but both of these events were intense and comprised of long days!

So, what is the “take away” from Bill Schwab’s Photostock?

Not unlike many other things, that all depends on what one puts into it. I had expectations, of course, but tried to keep them in check, as I really didn’t know what to expect. The event has been going on for 10 years, and has evolved and grown, as good things do.

It was not what I expected in many ways. There was much more structure than I would have thought. A lot of people did get out in the area (beautiful part of the country) and take a lot of pictures. I did not, but that was my personal preference. Landscape is not my thing. (And in all fairness to me, I had two photo shoots on the way to Photostock, which produced 100s of photographs.)

There were several presentations by various photographic artists. This was unexpected, surprising (to me) and very enlightening! All types of photography was presented, but the connecting theme, whether intentional or not, seemed to be to stretch oneself. Get out of your comfort zone. Shoot new stuff. Try things. Be bold. Be adventurous. Experiment. Take risks. You get the idea.

The artists, and particularly the women (Schwab had made a point of inviting several female artists to speak), were fabulous and inspiring. Not to be sexist, but women photographers seem to me to be much more adventurous with photography than most of the male photographers I know. There’s very little of the same old rocks and trees with them.

There’s precedent, of course. Look at Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Mary Ellen Mark, Berenice Abbott (we had a presentation about one part of her career), and see how experimental they were in many areas of their work. These are just a few examples.

I may be overgeneralizing, but I see a trend.

Artists you should know about:

Christina Z. Anderson: http://www.christinazanderson.com

Anne Berry: http://www.anneberrystudio.com

Jennifer Crane: http://mannartgallery.ca/Summer_2012.pdf

Lori Vrba: http://www.lorivrba.com

An enlightening two and a half days. Worth the trip, and worth the time! I may go back.

Will it change my own photography? Directly, no; but only because I was changing anyway. It has, perhaps, contributed to speeding up the process.

Stay tuned …