Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Learning to See Part 9

This photography lurk is incredibly frustrating.

I’ve read all the books of late (it seems), searching for a resolution to this hindrance to my artistic endeavours only to find myself in a deeper quandary. Nothing fits. My efforts dissipate like pigeons in heavy traffic. My results are a misfit of misaligned, malnourished oddities waiting for the judgement of those to whom it can to be thrust upon and those that can’t be trusted to be objective: me.

Some of you who find it within themselves to feather praise on some of my photographs (mainly relatives, friends and those whose taste still allows them to wear stripes with checks) may suggest politely and encouragingly that I am being too harsh. After all, denigrating oneself is a trait all artists develop as part of their self-examination. Appropriating praise is apposite; languishing praise on oneself is garish.

But in the face of current thinking within the photographic fraternity I find myself drowning in a sea of rules, guidelines, suggestions, recommendations, lists and liturgies on how to improve my photographs and I just don’t get it!

Maybe I never have ‘got it’. My art teacher at school, Ken Reinhardt, suggested, in the light of my attempts at wielding a bush or pencil, I might consider my options and head for the woodwork classes where at least my handiwork could be used to warm myself if all else fails. Outside his critical view I found solace in the camera, more as a scientific tool for recording the miracles of nature in the working class, treeless streets of western Sydney.

There was no ‘art’ intended here. Point and press, then leave the rest to fate and the corner pharmacy who would, for a few shillings, turn the views of a young boy into blurred and blackened images to be cherished, if only by me.

Then came the ambition to be like others. Magazines and news print displayed masterpieces of photographic style that took my breath away. National Geographic, Life, Vogue, Playboy (for the articles only) and the like, all created a great deal of angst and anxiety within my pubescent sole. What I would give to photograph like that (as well as dealing with some other compulsions a growing boy might have)?

So I followed the rules, or at least attempted to. Concepts like ‘balance’ and ‘contrast’ meant nothing to me. Curves, diagonals and point sources evaded my vision. Negative space seemed more astronomical or mathematical. The Rule of Thirds was about as much use as a Band-aid on a battle ground. And the Golden Rule was lead in my shutter finger. I saw none of this in the viewfinder of my trusty Rolleiflex. All I saw was ....... life. People, buildings, hills and gullies, flora and fauna, all interacting as they do, passing in and out of my life as they do, allowing me to see it all on the ground glass screen and occasionally record what I saw for my amusement and possible prosperity.

So, like many of the things I did not understand as a young man (Shakespeare was bewildering, Byron was baloney and women! Well, what can I say?) I cast aside the idea of ever becoming an accomplished photographer and concentrated on photographing what I saw instead of what I couldn’t see.

There are those that say my photographs fit the ‘rules’ anyway. It’s as if I have no choice, as if I have a ‘geometry gene’ attached securely to the 19th chromosome or some such place and it was inevitable that I fall into the paradigm bestowed upon all those who pursue photography with any serious intent. Their reasoning for me having taken photographs which do not fit their prerequisites for ‘good’ composition is because, subliminally or subconsciously, I ‘know’ the rules and choose to break them.

All this may be true, for it is not for me to know what I am thinking when taking photographs. I’ll leave that to someone more astute. What I do know is that the pursuit of life as I find it is far more fulfilling than any quest for the perfect picture where all the numbers have been considered and the composition has been formulated instead of the image felt. What sits before me is not presented as compositional elements to be placed in the frame in a manner befitting a draughts-person but a set of circumstances for me to take in and ponder, reflect and wonder. Sometimes I will choose to record what I see. I don’t know why I enjoy it so much. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any rules to follow, just feelings to express.

My physics teacher told me that light enters the eyes for us to see. Apparently, back in the old days when everything was deemed to emanate from the body, the soothsayers suggested that we see because something leaves our eyes and falls upon the objectives of our vision, illuminating it in some way. I know this not to be the case. My physics teacher was very convincing. But maybe ‘seeing’ is that mystical material, that ethereal quantity, that indefinable fabric of thought that stems from looking and letting out sole project its wonder and mystery onto what is there.

Maybe there is a little bit of magic as well.


  1. Tom, I think you over analyse yourself. Maybe you should leave it to others. You enjoy what you do and others (me included) enjoy looking at your images. Black and white images this time. I know they are your preference. The magic lives!

  2. I find myself constantly renewed and invigorated by your running series here, Tom. I have much the same feelings I had as a boy on Christmas morning when my RSS reader tells me there's a new post from you; my heart fills with wonder and joy and I cannot wait to unwrap the gift you've left for us all to discover. As with Christmas presents, the first step in discovery comes from the initial removal of the wrapping paper; in this case it's as simple as a mouse click. I love your work, you are a friend, a teacher and a constant source of pure inspiration.

  3. Great images Tom.
    After 30 (++) years taking photos I still have the same feelings and doubts that you describe above. It becomes clear to me over time that certain things are perhaps cast in stone.
    I know the rules of photography, I know when I break them, I sort of know what I like (or more probably don't like).
    I think there are people who can learn the rules and become good photographers, but there are people who shoot on instinct and these people are great photographers.
    What I see above in images and words looks to be instinct..

  4. Tom, you couldn't have described my process any more truly. Thank you for finding the right words for it.

  5. You have literary skills. Don't be greedy.