Remembering Some Basics

Ask any educator and they’ll tell you that teaching is usually a two-way street. While, as a teacher, you always hope to impart useful knowledge to your students, (and possibly even understanding) you almost always come away learning something yourself. For the last four years I’ve had the great privilege to work at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute, an exceptional arts camp for 14 to 18-year-olds. And every year, our students remind me of some very simple, essential photographic tenets. If you’ve lately been feeling uninspired, or “stuck” with your shooting , perhaps some of these ideas will help you re-find your photographic footing.

Good photos can happen anywhere. Too often, we think we have to go somewhere special to find pictures – to a landmark location, or a “pretty” place, or a location that’s not well-travelled. But good photographers understand that compelling subject matter can happen anywhere. Consider this image by Jake Basnet:

There’s no telling how many times I’ve been at a gas station, yet never once have I seen this image. In fact, never once have I looked for photos at a gas station, because to my mind it’s a “mundane” place.

Whether it’s simple enthusiasm, the pressure of having two weeks to produce a gallery exhibition, or some combination of both, the students consistently do a great job of finding subject matter amongst the everyday locales that they move through while at the Institute. So, before you think that you have to ship off to exotic ports of call to find good pictures, take another look at what’s in your immediate area. If you can’t find compelling work at home, there’s no guarantee you’ll find it in a more “photogenic” locale.

All photos begin with light. Photography is literaly “writing with light” and, usually, subject matter is secondary to lighting, because good lighting can make an otherwise boring scene into something captivating. So, while it’s easy to get caught up in the process of looking for interesting things, very often what you need to be doing is looking for good light. Maddy Staires found a hallway with a nice overheard spotlight in it, but very little else. Recognizing the potential, she dragged one of her friends into the pool of light, started shooting, and came up with this:

While the hands dominate the image, it was the light that drove her creative process. Maddy also did the other thing that a good photographer should do: once she had her subject in place, she worked the shot. She composed different ways, tried different poses, and experimented until she found what she wanted. It’s the rare photographer who takes a single exposure of a scene. More often, good photos are found by shooting many many frames of a scene.

Portraits don’t have to be about faces. The human body is very expressive, and faces are not necessary to create a compelling portrait. Lauren Kerr took this picture of writing instructor George Bilgere (at OSAI, there are eight disciplines in addition to photography).

While cutting off a subect’s head is usually not one’s first instinct, this portrait has plenty of expression and dynamism. We live in a world that’s flooded with glamour portraits, and journalistic portraits, so it’s difficult to remember that you can experiment with portrait framing and composition, just as you do when shooting landscapes, still lifes, or any other material.

Your subject doesn’t always fit in your frame. The Institute is held at a beautiful resort on a lake in the Quartz Mountain State Park in southwestern Oklahoma. In addition to being a fun, pretty, inspiring environment for all of the disciplines, for photographers the location is especially great thanks to its proximity to a number of very small towns. Each year, the incredibly welcoming people of Mangum give us access to an abandoned 5-story art deco hotel. Long past its heyday, the Franklin Hotel is in a beautiful state of ruin and decay, and is full of textures, colors, depression-era decor and objects, and more. When wandering through it, it’s easy to find yourself trying to shoot entire rooms, and large tableaus. While there are plenty of these that make good subject matter, if you get too caught up in trying to capture the literal spaces of the hotel, you tend to miss out on little details like this fork, shot by Caroline Chapman.

This image is a great example of what can happen when you take your time, slow down, and explore a location in detail. There’s a nice sense of play in this picture, and a wonderful upending of scale. You can’t always contain an entire space within the bounds of a single frame, so remember to take the space apart, and work its details and components.

Look through the camera. This may hardly sound like a tip, since you usually have to look through the camera to take a shot, but when on location I’ll often hear complaints from students (of all ages) who say they can’t find any pictures. But when I watch them search for images, I never see them look through the camera. The world looks very different when viewed through the crop of your camera’s viewfinder. While we all like to think that we can recognize an image simply by walking past it, the fact is that you sometimes don’t see a shot until you look through the camera. “Composition” is the process of arranging the forms in your image, and the boundary of your frame is your first organizational structure. Very often, I’ll look at a scene and think there’s nothing there, then look through the camera, and suddenly see a composition that I hadn’t spotted with the naked eye.

Emily Maxwell shot this chair and pair of mirrors in a furniture store. A wonderful play of geometry, it’s the sort of composition that you often have to look through the camera to identify.

If you have even the slightest impulse that a scene might be photo-worthy, look at it through your camera, and see what kind of composition presents itself.

Over the course of two weeks, all of the disciplines at OSAI (ballet, modern dance, orchestra, acting, writing, film/video, painting, chorus and photography) work toward a final presentation. In the case of the photography class, this is a gallery exhibit that is hung in the Quartz Mountain lodge, and is open to the public. Each student selects three prints that get matted and framed. In addition, for the last three years, Unibind has generously donated their Photo Book Creator materials, so that each student can make a hardback photo book of their work. These also go on display in the gallery, and they allow the students to show a large amount of work. This year, Hahnemuhle donated enough of their Gallerie Wrap kits for each student to do a gallery wrap. These inexpensive, exceptionally-designed kits make it simple to prepare a professional-calibre gallery wrap, and these were hung next to the printed materials.

This year, photography teacher Jill Enfield introduced the students to cyanotype. In addition to cyanotype prints made from film and digital negatives, they did some bedsheet-sized cyanotypes, which you can see hanging over the gallery.

The students were free to move between the traditional wet darkroom, and the state-of-the-art digital lab (an all-Mac lab, generously loaned by Apple).

I’ve collected a small sample of student work into a digital gallery – one image from each student. You’ll find a link to it at the bottom of this story.

While the gallery presents more examples of the lessons presented above (as well as many others) what it can’t show is the less tangible thing that I am inspired by each year. When you shoot for a living, it’s very easy to get hung up on the final product, and whether it will be useful or not. When wandering around, I often find myself not shooting a subject, because I don’t think it has any potential, either commercial, or as a teaching image, or as something I can use in a book. In other words: I’m editing my selects before I’ve even shot them! Even if your livelihood doesn’t depend on photos, it can be easy to get competitive with yourself when shooting, and end up shooting less, or hobbling yourself with a premature editing eye.

While it may seem like teenagers are unfocused, what with their iPods, incessant text messaging, and seemingly scattered attitude, they’re very often far more creatively “present” than they appear. I think a big part of this is simply because that pesky editorial presence hasn’t started yet. Watching them work is to remember that you’re supposed to have fun while shooting. And while this might be a cliché, it can be a surprisingly difficult attitude to practice, if you’re jaded about shooting. So, find some teenage photographers, and see if they’ll let you tag along next time they go shooting. You might find their enthusiasm infectious.

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