Friday, April 29, 2011

Learned filters and the Zen of picture making.

I am teaching a course in ‘composition’ for my camera club these days and while I have no idea how effective this is for the other members yet, - any positive results will take a while to show up -, I do know that this focus is doing good things for my own creativity. Typically, the teacher who first must synthesis and then lead others to do the same is the primary learner.

There are some difficult considerations of course, the main one being that people are used to being spoon fed from childhood on, - we break down learning into bite sized portions, provide simple rules and guidelines and assume a stepped learning ladder. I have always taught from a different perspective. - that complex thinking like that which goes into creative work does not lend itself to simplification. It is not the sum of its parts and to pretend that it is makes for a whole bunch of minds who think they know but really have missed the boat. So, the learning process for photography as usually presented actually leads down a wrong path, away from creativity and blocks individual thought. Creativity is a complex and intuitive form of thinking that does not work well with ‘how-to’ lessons.

I have always taught from the perspective that individuals are their own best teachers. A thoughtful learner who finds things out for himself, takes nothing as given, questions everything and experiments endlessly, is more likely to produce original work and advance thought and ideas for his culture as a whole. Photography has such potential for fresh seeing, but is loaded down with standards. We are lead to believe that there are desirable models,‘good images’, that we should emulate. That beauty is synonymous with ‘pretty’ rather than with ‘truth’. That good images are those that sell and are hung on living room walls. A consumer society and its art.

We all see the world through ‘filters’ of various sorts. We drive down the road, while thinking of personal concerns. We barely see the traffic, never mind the way a cloud looks on the horizon. When we go out especially to photograph a landscape, we may see the cloud but use a standard compositional device, one of a few that we apply to all our picture making, to incorporate it into our photograph. The more professional we become, the more the cords of convention and habit bind us up. The challenge must be to peer so closely at our subject that what comes into our camera is the expression of what is and comes from the subject itself. No rules or conventions, no filters between us and the subject. That requires a zen-like mind and a willingness to be misunderstood. An individual path.

In fact, the camera and its images that are harvested in this way become a tool for personal growth. We look closely to make our photographs and the whole world opens for us in a completely fresh way. Making pictures becomes effortless and filterless. Our subjects reach up, organize themselves, and rush into the camera. They are us in a very deep sense.

So, given all that, how does one teach from this perspective? I introduce the elements that are present in some combination or other in the world around us. If we take a photograph, they are there. Things like texture, line, form, colour, point, rhythm, and value. The basic building blocks. My interest, however, is in their relationships, how they work together to communicate whatever it is that they are ‘saying’. I expect my fellow photographers to take it from there and teach themselves by constantly looking clearly at the world around them and also referring to their own recent images as a guide toward the creation of their future ones, - ‘where is my next step?’

If we spend time looking from this perspective, then the cloud is not just a cloud, a white puffy thing, neither is it a simply a form in itself. It exists in relationship with everything else, glides over fields and mountains, sifts through trees and when we enter into its foggy breath and know it, then our chances are greater that we will have something in our mind and in our camera that communicates ‘cloudliness’. A fuzzy subject, its true.

The person with the camera then, needs to step past all those learned filters, those rules of composition, and simply open himself wide enough so that the ‘subject’ can express itself. We must be in relationship and practice that state of mind. It doesn`t matter if our images seem to lack structure at first, that they stray from the ‘rules’. We are breaking out of convention, making our own trail in the forest. Or, as we will begin to suspect, the trail is creating itself in front of our feet.

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