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To Shoot or Not to Shoot: That is the Question
by Phil Davis

Having trouble finding something to photograph? If so, you may simply have a negative attitude (bad pun; sorry). That is, you may be bypassing potential subject matter simply because it’s not “suitable,” or perhaps because “it’s been done.”

If that’s the case, here’s a challenge for you: Forget “suitable” and try to look at the world with fresh eyes. In other words, don’t concentrate on rejecting things you don’t want to photograph, try simply looking at things without being consciously selective or judgmental. Then if something catches your attention, don’t worry about whether it’s silly or trivial, or whether “it’s been done” or not, but take a second look and consciously ask yourself, “Why was I attracted to this? Then study the subject carefully to see if you can identify the feature or aspect that caught your eye, and if it continues to be attractive, try to capture the essence of its appeal in a photograph.

You’ll probably find this “fresh eye” approach very difficult because unless you’re an unusually uninhibited, self-possessed, free-thinking individual, you’ve almost certainly been conditioned to avoid or ignore anything that isn’t recognizable as “good subject matter.” This is especially likely to be true if you’ve studied photography in school or attended “fine art” photography workshops, because teachers, critics. and workshop gurus delight in showing you examples of “good” work (often their own) to emulate, while discouraging you from doing anything that’s “been done” before. This “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma can act as a set of blinders, giving you tunnel vision that keeps you from really seeing much of the world. In extreme cases it can leave you creatively constipated, unable even to set up a tripod or remove a lens cap.

Ideally we shouldn’t be affected by any of these artificial restrictions. When a gut feeling tells us that were looking at something worth photographing, we should stop and pay attention without worrying about what other people (especially critics and teachers) are likely to think or say about it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to develop that sort of self-confidence, so we may have to prepare ourselves with an analysis of the problem.

Think of it this way: calling a photograph “good” or “bad” implies that there must be criteria for recognizing “worse", “better", and even “best.” But if these criteria had ever existed the details would have leaked out long ago, and we’d all be making “best” pictures now, wouldn’t we? That’s hardly the case, so we can sensibly conclude that there aren’t any standards of image excellence other than those imposed on us by “experts” and what right do they have to tell us what we should or shouldn’t do? Art, after all, is ideally a creative, expressive activity indulged in for the personal gratification of the artist. In other words, unless you’re working on commercial assignment, what you photograph and how you photograph it, is really your business and your business only.

If you can make yourself believe this it should reopen a whole world of subject matter, including all those rocks, trees, old buildings, nudes, etc., that are both admired (if they’re vintage prints done by the “masters”) and disparaged as cliché's (if anyone else does them). Of course, they’ve all “been done” before - but not by you! This is a medium of personal expression, remember? Your shot of “Half Dome” may resemble Ansel’s but your experience in making the photograph is uniquely yours - or at least it can be if you can forget Ansel’s image for the moment and concentrate on your own response to the subject. Then if some self-styled critic complains that your photograph “looks just like Ansel’s” you might reply, “And you, sir, remind me of Alfred E. Newman, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a copy, and it certainly doesn’t deny you the right to exist!”

Of course this is brave talk, and most of us donut have the guts to tell the rest of the world to buzz off. We are, after all, social beings and other people’s opinions really do matter to us, even though we like to pretend they don’t. So if you want show your photographs to other folks - and if you want them to be favorably impressed - you will almost certainly have to accept some constraints and pander to contemporary taste to at least some extent. You may have to listen to a lot of pretentious nonsense, too.

But don’t let criticism wound or inhibit you. A negative critical comment may be delivered in gobbledygook “art-speak,” but all it probably means is that the critic doesn’t like something about your picture. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve made a “bad” photograph or that you’re a bad photographer - and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. It does mean that if you yearn for this particular critic’s approval you should fix the “problem” whatever it is.

But that’s strictly up to you. My advice is to photograph whatever appeals to you, and do it as thoughtfully and as effectively as you possibly can. Then make the best print you’re capable of, and if you’re satisfied with it, call it a “keeper,” enjoy it yourself, and share it with friends and family.

Of course you can also show it formally if you want to, but remember, when you submit your work for criticism - whether in school, in a workshop, in a juried exhibition, or just to another person - you’re really saying to the critic or the jury or the person, “What do I have to do to make you like my work better?”

What “authority” can resist an invitation like that? You might as well hang a “Kick Me” sign on your back! Of course, depending on how badly you need support and approval, it may be worth the risk. A kick in the pants isn’t really a sign of respect, but at least it’s recognition of a sort - and there’s always some possibility that you might get a pat on the back instead.


© 2007 Phil Davis