Skip to main content

The Determined Photographer - or How I Photograph

"[M]aking a revolution is more important than making a story about the revolution." "[Photographs] - but for both myself and the people there - they're like souvenirs or landmarks... so it's not so much what they are - but where they lead you." - Photographer Susan Meiselas.


“I grew up both in front of and behind the lens of the camera. My father taught me at an early age to use a camera (his Leica M3) and make a print. His practice was to give me one roll of Tri-X film every two weeks and an assignment that was simple in its goal, but difficult to achieve.


"He would ask for a still life lit with one light source or a portrait of my sister jumping rope, with the purpose of my learning the importance of shutter speeds. I would go into the basement darkroom where I soon realized how a good edit would effect the outcome of the assignment.


"With dried prints in hand we would meet on Sunday night where my father would critique my work." - Photographer Susan Barnett.


"Being the sort of person who always dreams of doing something else while occupied, he could not sit down to practice a piece [on his clarinet] without pausing to work out a chess problem in his head, could not play chess without thinking about the failures of the Chicago Cubs, could not go to the ballpark without considering some minor character in Shakespeare, and then, when he finally got home, could not sit down with his book for more than twenty minutes without feeling the urge to play his clarinet. Wherever he was, then, and wherever he went, he left behind a cluttered trail of bad chess moves, of unfinished box scores, and half-read books." - Author Paul Auster, from the novel Moon Palace.

*

What follows are some partly edited and mostly unedited musings about the process of photography.

*


 Love of pictures. That's why we photograph. Why do we love pictures so much? I don't know. Ingmar Bergman once asked the Swedish people (through a radio program) where music comes from. Implicitly he asked why we embrace music and why it has such influence on our emotions. He got tons of answers. They were all variations on one theme (pun intended): We recognize something in music that deep down connects to our humanity. That's why we make it and enjoy listening to it. The same goes for pictures in either form. In photographs we see icons and archetypes and in our minds we make stories of them to which we attibute emotions.

That's my understanding of it when thinking about it at the moment. I'll most definitely get back to the subject again in this book.

So, we love seeing pictures. Why do we love making them too? Well, some of us do.

I love being in the thrill of taking the picture. Compose and click! Often I realize that I've held my breath while in the process of taking several pictures in a row. It's that exciting - and ultimately exhausting!

That moment of capturing the perfect composition in the conditions surrounding that one scene is the essence of photography. That's how we make a photograph. All else are technicalities. Or are they?

To achieve a photograph that is not blurry I buy 400 ASA film. In the light conditions of where I live in Northern Europe a fast film is necessary during most months of the year. If the sun is not beating down I usually get a reading of f/5,6 and 1/125th if I use 400 ASA film when I leave my house. That's not much to play around with if I go handheld and want a sharp exposure with decent depth of field. Also I don't schlep a tripod around. It would help get my photos sharp, but it doesn't fit my way of taking photographs.

How do I photograph, then? I walk. And I stop to photograph. Then I keep walking. Then I stop to consider taking a photograph. Etc. etc. That is how I took most pictures in my life. The incidental photographer.

But now: I am 46 years old. I feel a strong urge to become less casual about my photography. I am slowly overcoming my personal shyness when it comes to making my photography public, so to say. To ask people of their portrait for instance. Or to ask to be present for an event to document it. Or for that matter to display them on Instagram or on a gallery wall.

Today I am confident enough in my photography work that I dare to take space. To say to people: This is what I do. I am photographing. I am a photographer. I've become a determined photographer. It has been a long journey. I am 46, have been photographing on a daily if not weekly basis for 27 years.

It helps to not feel alone. Either in my daily life, or workplace or as a fellow photographer. To meet and open up to people takes practice. If you feel alone it is very difficult to feel a legitimate part of a place, or a scene, a group. To be (or act) determined. As a photographer - I'm thinking here primarily of street, documentary or event photography - you are physically present. As are the people you photograph. So if you feel and act as if you're uncomfortable in that situation others will treat you as an outsider. But if you feel - or learn to feel - and act confident others will take you for granted.

Here follows an example from my recent working life - which is not photography related: I was hired for a four month period to support the building and maintenance section of workers at a local papermill during the summer months. A group of middle aged men work there. Most have worked there for twenty years or more. I as a newcomer was a blank page for these people. I am old enough to know that you don't need to make a show of your personality or entire skillset as soon as you join a new group. That will show eventually through your actions and primarily through your social interaction. All you need to do is show up every day, take on the tasks that are handed to you and try and get on with your colleagues in the process, day for day. Your perseverance at showing up every morning, smiling while you greet your colleagues, kindly offering your seat to the older guy - all of it posits you in people's perception as a decent chap with nothing to prove and nothing to wield in their faces.

The same goes for a photo-assignment, be it in a street market, a wedding, or outside the lobby at the Holiday Inn in war-torn Sarajevo. What I've struggled with for years is what you might call "friendly banter" with strangers. I've had no problem doing it when I've felt safe in the company of friends or in known circumstances. But I've shied from it in interactions with strangers in daily life - I have particularly felt vulnerable with a camera in my hand. It has been a long journey to feel relaxed in myself while keeping the camera visible and acting as if I belong in a situation.

For an amateur photographer to feel obvious in an environment is not always easy. If you are a professional on an assignment that is not an issue. You know perfectly well why you are there. And you act as it, as well. So, in my experience the best help for the amateur to develop one's photographic skills is to invent assignments if they are not given to you. I must confess that I am not very good at it. But the assignments don't have to be complicated. They can be anything. During one week I got up at dawn and decided to expose for the highlights on my usual 45 or 90 minute walks. It's how I usually expose for digital photos, and had picked up that some of my favourite photographs of recent times were taken by photographers who do it with their film photography. Pursuing this assignment helped me train my eye to see - and arrange - compositions in a different way.

Another assignment I've given myself was to document people in workplaces under the theme 'Produktion/Production'. The assignment grew out of an urge to photograph colleagues from the paper mill in their workplace. I was denied to visit with my camera since I didn't appear to be professional enough and was vague as to the means of publication of the photographs. After a conversation with a woman running a gallery I decided to expand my assignment to several production facilities. And to try and drum up ways to display the final product.

So, in a roundabout way, after a few days, I had an Assignment, a Plan and a Deadline. Not bad.

In the past I constantly told people that I wanted commissoins or assignments. Because that's when I am the most productive - be it photography, illustration work, writing or sculpture/miniature making. Because if there is no deadline nothing might come out after the initial creative energy burst has ceded. I don't have the inherent determination that many other creative people do. But, as it happens, today I am more confident enough to give myself assignments and follow through. (Thank you my life partner, for showing your appreciation of my pictures!)

*

It is fun to do things you are good at.

That is an eternal truth. And the sense of being competent also is a booster for gaining more knowledge.

I ran a used bookshop for less than a year during 2012. It was great fun to source books and present them to customers. There wasn't much cashflow in the business and my business plan was far from realistic. In the weeks before closing I looked around the internet for more ways to sell the remaining books. They were already for sale on a Swedish used book site. I found Etsy, an online store where sellers could advertise and sell their art, craft or vintage stuff. That stayed in my mind for some time and surfaced when suddenly I had two vintage SLRs to sell.

When my daughter had turned one we went for a week's holiday to London. Both me and my girlfriend had visited years ago. We went for a pedestrian semi-local outside-the-guide-books stay that included hanging out with my girlfriend's student sister. A couple of weeks before taking the ferry from Denmark to the UK I had bought a Ricoh XR-6 aperture priority SLR with a 28-80 zoom lens from an antiques shop. It was the first camera I'd bought since the 2009 Oympus XA (SEK 10/€1) and the third since the 1993 Pentax P30, not counting the countless (pun intended!) disposable cameras that had accompanied me through my twenties and early thirties.

Using the Ricoh was great fun and a revelation. After years in compact kingdom I still enjoyed - and knew how to operate! - a semi-automatic SLR. The dormant beast within me was stirred to life.

Months later I bought a battery-less Canon AE-1 for SEK 50/€5 at a local flea-market. Weeks later I had set up my Etsy shop getOurBooks where two film cameras were for sale along with a bunch of books. Four and a half years and something like 400 photography related sales later the shop is still up and running.

What I'm outlining here is a sort of maturing process. I suddenly found myself at a point of convergence where my constant passion for photography met the realities of the second hand market for analog cameras. I could fit myself into a niche where I could explore photography and its tools while earning some (modest amounts) of money from it. I had taken a small step from 100% amateur to some sort of professional position, if at the outskirts of the photography community. That feeling has since then been carefully siphoned into the posts of my blog, if at first tentative.

*

Carl-Johan DeGeer is a revered Swedish artist and filmmaker. In his younger years, during the 1960s and '70s he earned his living as a photographer. One of his early published books is a collection of personal photographs. In the 1980s when I as a kid and teenager browsed the shelves up and down the aisles of the town library his was one of the photography books that made a lasting impression on me. They were family snapshots but at the same time well composed, not just random like the ones seen in family photo albums. And they were in black & white which made them more urgent, like photos seen in the newspapers.

Carl-Johan's photographs were also different from the photographs seen in the books about the Second world war, that appealed to my young mind, of grieving shell-shocked women or soot-covered men in grey uniforms. I think they - along with other photographer's work - made me see the possible connection between black & white photography and my own life. The pivotal moment arrived when a friend of a friend invited me to join him for evening classes in photography in my last year of [college?] (at the age of 18).

The sense that I could produce photographs that had a connection to those I'd seen in the books has been prevalent through all the years. I suppose photography has kept me connected to the world when fleeting friendships and communities haven't. I photograph - therfore I am...?

I don't want to write in general about what makes a great photograph. First, it has been done. And second, what makes a great photograph is often a personal thing between the viewer and the photograph. It is so abstract that my words fail me. In the words of photographer Sotiris Lamprou: "Photography is a very subjective art. As far as I am concerned, I strongly believe that a meaningful photograph is the one that touches the essence of even the apparently insignificant things, generating an emotional response."

What I want to write about is the processes that lead to a photograph. Snap, Crackle, Pop! The footwork. The determination. Though as a person and as a photographer I must say that I am not an example of diligence. I am convinced of its definite value, though.

*

Photographer Eduardo Pavez Goye: "An active body translates into an active photograph."

Photographer David Alan Harvey: "The picture's never over. You squeeze the lemon. Squeeeze the lemon till there's no more juice. And then there's always another drop."

Photographer John Free has said: Be prepared to be approached - you are actually the one approaching. Take your time, don't move fast. You have to be everybody's friend, that's all. And you have to have a camera.

The above quotes speak volumes about the photographer. The person seeking the composition that is simply the best one in the circumstances needs to be present in both mind and body. The lens is the eye, and for it to capture what one intends one needs to move one's body. If you work in a studio with a static set-up it is uncomplicated to try different compositions. If you are among people in a controlled environment or in the street - like the three quoted photographers - the elements of the composition are probably moving, as are other factors which make up the components of the final photograph. So: Movement; perseverance; communication - in some form or other.

MOVE YOUR BODY

STICK AROUND

WAIT

INTERACT

*

The flâneur. Up until I had a family of my own my lifestyle was that of the flâneur, I think. And my photography from that time reflects that. It is predominantly urban, social, and sporadic. Incidental. I enjoy(ed) walking around in cities, taking the odd turn away from the obvious city centres. I prided myself in finding the not-so-fancy establishments or small shops on the side streets. I discovered short-cuts or scenic routes along neglected buildings or water ways. In the process always carrying a disposable or compact camera in a coat pocket ready to record the oddities or excentricities of the built environment or of nature.

Remember - I rarely took photos of/interacted with people. Instead the camera would act as both recorder and note-book, in the way a smartphone camera does today. Some snaps were only for memory and not to be seen, really. It is no coincidence that the purchase of my first proper digital camera was prerequisite of it having a good macro function so that I could record quotes from printed newspaper pages.

The photographs from the earlier time in my life are often full of an energetic presence. They are also renown of technical prowess, which make them instant successes or failures in an aesthetic sense. With time I would learn the limitations of the single-use and use them to benefit the photograph.

As I become more confident in myself I learn that other people are not a source of intimidation. I learn that they are like me, and I like them. So I can speak to them in the way I would like them to speak to me - as equals in the shared experience which is everyday life. There is always the weather...

Up until recently I hadn't reflected much about my compulsive photographing. Then I read Pamera Bannos' book on Vivian Maier. I realized that Maier's photography was - or became - a sort of hoarding. A limitless collecting of information. She not only photographed people she met, but she recorded newspaper articles as a help for her memory, I suppose. And she filmed a lot, on 8 and 16 mm.

"If I don't photograph, there's no evidence that I exist at all."

For years I would leave rolls at the photo lab for developing at least twice a month. The copies I got were viewed and reviewed many times by myself. Partly to distinguish which exposures were the best aesthetically, and partly to show myself that I had a life at all, I suppose.

Much like what Carl-Johan DeGeer displayed in his book, I have been photographing my daily life since late adolescence. All the while following an urge to take really good photographs of what I see and experience. There have been limits to what has ended up in this body of work, for instance due to my shyness with strangers; the limitations of the snapshot cameras; but most of all the lack of method or diligence in my photographic pursuits.

Think again of the quote from David Alan Harvey: "The picture's never over. You squeeze the lemon. Squeeeze the lemon till there's no more juice. And then there's always another drop." In the past I sqeezed no lemons when photographing. But now, once I've had the opportunity/inclination to dig deeper into the METHOD of photographers, revelations have appeared. One can say that what started with the Canon AE-1 and then became a sort of exploration of the world of vintage cameras, now has turned into a vehicle for both my social and artistic interests. The first step was starting a camera business. The second is channelled through my blogging. And with the third I can channel several aspects of my intellectual and artistic creativity into photography projects. I am determined to photograph.

*

My love for street photography has always been present. A good street photograph is like a newspaper cartoon that in one single scene illustrates an emotion - the very true or very absurd. The one-picture truth about being human.

I have also always loved documentary photography. The sequence or collection of photographs telling a story about what it is to be human in certain circumstances or emotional states. There is always the one photograph in the collection/reportage which is the strongest. That's the one ending up on the cover or title page in the magazine. But it is like a headline: One needs to see the other pictures to know the whole story.

Much has been written and said (youtubed) about street photography. What I want to highlight is the connection between street and documentary photography, and that if you master the method of the one you should easily be able to work with the other. Here's my thoughts: Working within both genres places the photographer as a subject in the scene; one benefits from being diligent, patient, communicative. Of course, the street photographer is an intruder, some might say. But if you follow the advice of John Free and others you are as one with the subjects of your composition.

Through the years my own method of photography has been that of the snap-shot family man combined with hints of the street photographer. Document what you see. Observe - then react to what you see. What I'm learning now is how I step out of my comfort zone - or indeed expand it! - to excert more control over what I see.

"D'uh?"

Let me elaborate:

If I feel and act as someone who belongs in a social context I will not be stressed out - distracted - from what is my task: Making photographs. So, if I learn to control - or grow into - an assertive state of mind I can become the professional photographer that I want to be. This 'state of mind' is achieved by Method. I.e. to decide to follow a thought out protocol that will (after some practice) lead to your succeeding what you strive for: (Apply in your preferred order the following)

MOVE YOUR BODY

STICK AROUND

WAIT

INTERACT

One good example of 'squeezing the lemon' as mentioned by David Allan Harvey is found in the book Contacts edited by Steve Crist. The famous photograph of the resigning US president Richard Nixon making an awkward wave with his arm on the stairs to the presidential helicopter was taken by David Hume Kennerly. In the mentioned book we get to see one contact sheet of 20 photos in all, taken in sequence when Nixon climbed the stairs and waved his arms to an unseen audience. Harvey - or his editor - has chosen the most strained looking moment of Nixon's waving to represent the painful last moments of his political career.

Hume Kennerly did some 'squeezing' making exposure upon exposure from these short moments, knowing that the next had the potential to be better than the former.

David Allan Harvey's quote is taken from a documentary sequence where he takes pictures of an aquaintance dipping and diving into waves on a very photogenic stretch of beach in beautiful light. He takes some photos, then makes a comment to the interviewer, then snaps more exposures while commenting some more. All the while squeezing out another potential best photograph.

Be present; stay put; interact; be visible; 'what happens next?'; take the step. - That is the working method of Doisneau, and Maier.

*

Robert Frank and Anton Corbijn are two photographer whose work has heavily influenced me. Experiencing Frank's work early on made me realize that the actual photograph (on paper) could be manipulated or added to by way of pencil or brush - or be used as a collage element. The paper copy was not necessarily the finished work - you could continue your work with pen in hand. Frank also taught me that you don't need sharpness or a good composition to evoke an interest or emotion in the viewer. You can work with suggestion instead of evocation.

In 1991 the Irish band U2 released their album Achtung Baby. It was a monumental work, capturing the zeitgeist spot on. At least that's the feeling the 18 year old me had. The music reverberated from the razed Berlin Wall across the barren fields of East and Central Europe.

Oddly enough the artwork covering the album and leaflet was photographs mostly taken in North Africa. The photographer was the dutchman Anton Corbijn. His work is mostly defined by black & white portraits with strong highlights and deep blacks. Though on Achtung Baby were mostly colour photographs. One could still discern Corbijns hand, since the colours were printed as grainy as his usual blacks.

I have always loved Corbijns photographs, and have since experiencing Achtung Baby not cared to strive for truthful colour rendition in my photographs - be it film or digital. The colours also add to a story and I wish to give that extra boost to my photographs, since I chose the composition for a reason. Ideally there should be a juxtaposition between what the viewer knows and what they see in my photograph. That's what Corbijn does so well - he challenges the viewer's conceptions by adding heavy grain or punchy colours.

***

What you have read above is a collection of thoughts and experiences. If they connect to your ideas or consicerations please let me know. You can reach me in the comments or via ourbooksmalmo@gmail.com.


Thank you for reading my blog. Don't hesitate to seek out my photographs at Instagram #ourbooksmalmo or my camera shop at Etsy getOurBooks.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lomo-Modd-Orama

A Lomo Smena 8 camera with a faulty shutter. An Olympus Pen F camera. Part of a microscope adapter for the Pen. That's what I started out with. 45 minutes later I had a new lens!

Mount
The mount came off a microscope adapter. I got the adapter from my first (of two) attempts to buy an Olympus Pen F. There seem to be some unscrupolous ebay sellers around peddling useless Pens with microscope adapted prisms. Luckily - in hindsight - I got a microscope adapter with this first Pen. Which I now trashed when a Lomo Smena 8 without a future landed on my doorstep (figuratively speaking).



Conversion / Havoc

Smena
I only knew the camera as a half-frame camera [Correction - it's a full frame camera!] called Smena 8 and hadn't thought to place it in Lomography-land until I read the name Lomo on the lens when it was already modded. Unwittingly I had tread the tiles of lomo-dom twice in as many weeks, also having put two rolls through a Praktica CX-1 which appears to be Ground Zero of Lo…

Chaika Leica

Well, here's a Chaika 2M that I bought from Alex Helios via Instagram. 

It's a great full manual viewfinder half-frame camera. The wheel on the top is for shutter time selection, from B to 1/30th to 1/250th of a second. The square button on the front right of the camera is the release/exposure.

The lens mounted on the camera in the picture is not the original Industar-69. The Chaika is a rare model compact camera since the prime lens is detachable. What is more is that it has M39 screw mount. But - like with the Paxette M39 system - you can't get focus with a lens from another M39 system.

Unless you adapt the lens or - in this case - the camera (mount)!





The Chaika mount is easily detached from the body by loosening four screws. If I want to mount the Leica thread mount M39 (LTM) lenses on the Chaika - which is my goal with this mod - I have to add 1.3mm to the mount. That is what is needed to change the camera's flange focal distance (FFD) from Chaika system to LTM sys…

Pax Expansivos - Expanding the Use of a Paxette Kit

That which you see before your eyes are hybrids. They are the concoction of a twisted mind. (Mine.)
  The idea sprung to mind while researching the Paxette camera. I learned that it had exchangeable lenses with M39 screw mount - not compatible with Leica thread mount (LTM) system M39 lenses, though. The reason they weren't compatible systems? FFD difference. I.e. Flange Focal Distances differed.

The Paxette body project
But! I have another lens with M39 mount that's not compatible with LTM cameras, I pondered. The Mir-1 which came with the early Zenit SLRs. I had to use an adapter ring to make it fit my M42 screw mount cameras. What if...
  So I fit it to the Paxette body. The exact same screw threads. Then I read up on FFD. The difference between the Paxette system and the M42 SLR system is 1.46mm apparently. That explains why I hadn't come across anyone online who claimed to use Paxette lenses on an SLR. It would be out of focus.
  On the other hand... Why don…