Sharp Images: Fuzzy Concepts

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Ansel Adams

The great Ansel Adams was famous for pre-visualising his images before he photographed them: prior to pushing the button he already knew in his head how it was going to look when he’d finished the entire process from setting up the photo to hanging up the print in the darkroom. Though this isn’t true of all his images, the famous Moonrise was a grab shoot in the finest sense of the word, involving the car skidding to a halt so he could leap out and get the shot. But generally he was a considered image maker who thought and planned his images

“The simple lesson of previsualization – that is as applicable today as when Ansel Adams was capturing his spectacular images of Yosemite National Park – is that while one might get lucky, and capture a fine image, the far more likely result of approaching a subject without an idea already in mind is disappointment”

Andy Ilachinsky

Great artists of all kinds produced in the past, produce today, a great number of sketches and working drawings before committing paint to paper or chisel to marble, refining the idea and exploring alternatives as they worked towards the finished piece. Sure, Paul Klee said that drawing was taking a line for a walk, but that doesn’t imply that he was unaware of the path it was going to take.  I, and I’m sure most other creative people, know what it’s like to work on something, trying different things and ultimately realising that what is wrong is the idea itself rather than the execution; to use the expression from the joke about the tourist who asks somebody in rural Ireland for directions and gets the response, “if I was you I’d not be starting from here”. When I was at university I often realised that if my essay was boring and pedestrian then the problem was the structure I’d picked for it. Before you create something, be it image, sculpture, dress, hairstyle or building, you need to know clearly what you want the result to be like, not necessarily exactly how it is going to look, but how it makes you feel.

Last year I found myself disatisfied with my photography. I knew I was better than I had been but felt I wasn’t improving or getting to where I wanted to be. So I asked a professional friend of mine if she’d mind looking at the photos I’d made on holiday that summer and give me one or two pointers; a critique which would just give me a couple of things I could concentrate on getting right. One of them was this image of Eastbourne pier, with which I was rather pleased actually, I wanted some beach and a low viewpoint and the line of posts in the foreground and the clouds were interesting, all of which I’d thought of when I made the image.

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Then I read her critique in which she said “the thing with that is I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, the pier, or the posts, or that clump of weeds”. She’s right of course, totally right. The flaw isn’t in the execution, I’d got into it everything I wanted…what was wrong was that I’d missed the key fact that it wasn’t really a photograph of anything. I should have thought about what the main point was and then asked myself if the other things were detracting from it. Looking at good professional work it’s clear, once I’d internalised it, that there is no doubt what we’re supposed to be looking at in the image; they’re not photographs of this …they’re photographs of this. Go and check out the amazing portraits of of Bella West, her subjects are not always in the middle of the frame filling the space, sometimes they’re off centre, or quite small, or not looking at the camera…but they are always full of intention – Ms West knows exactly what photo she’s taking before she takes it. There’s a nice interview with her here if people are interested in finding more about her and her work – Mike Browne calls her compositions “off the wall”; it’s fine to go off the wall if you know why you’re doing it!

So is this entire blog post a fuzzy concept? Let me know in the comments!

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