By George! is a regular photography column at fotoVUE by George Johnson, author and photographer of the forthcoming Photographing London. Sign up to our newsletter here to get alerts about all of our articles and discounts on our photo-location guidebooks.
Ilook back and I miss those times when I used to pick up the camera and shoot anything I wanted. Everything was so fresh when I started. I had no idea what any of the controls did, no idea about composition and really, I had no idea what I was doing, apart from having fun. It must have been three years after I started taking photography a little more seriously, before I joined my first photography website – this from someone who was using the internet in 1992. I wasn’t really interested in seeing other images, I suppose I wasn’t that worried about learning photography, I was simply having too much fun actually doing it.
Fast forward over a decade and now when I lift the camera it’s with the flood of a thousand images and inspirational photographers screaming for attention in the back of my mind.
“Shoot with the framing there, that’ll look like Robert Doisneau.”
“No, shoot with the person in that portion of the frame, that’ll be like Cartier- Bresson.”
“Look at the light on the undergrowth, that’ll look like Mark Littlejohn.”
“Imagine that part with strong saturation, that’ll look like David Noton.”
So you have to make a decision. Do I make images like others, or just shoot and be damned? No one wants to go home empty handed. So I try hard to block the chatter in your head, thinking of pure geometry, studying the light and lines, and if you’re really lucky it’ll look slightly less like you copied and mashed up a dozen influences.
A few years ago I discovered the photographer and teacher Ben Long. I found his images a little lifeless for my taste however as photography teacher, he excels. He has a superb way of distilling the essence of understanding photography, explaining composition, understanding light and what it takes to really appreciate the craft. It was a revelation.
I suddenly understood what had taken me seven or eight years to learn by trial and error. It felt good to understand why some of my images worked and some didn’t. It took me into a very self-critical phase where I applied the rules and lessons I’d learned and I pulled apart every single image I made. It felt damned good to know how some of this ‘art stuff’ worked. To someone who is an engineer by trade, it was like unscrewing the casing of a machine and finally seeing how it worked inside, not understanding it all of course but enough to know that it wasn’t magic any more. It had rules and guidelines, there were reason and even partial logic. However there was a price to pay, the death of photographic innocence.
Being busy I’m unable to travel far at the moment and I’ve found myself shooting in local places. Sadly I’ve found myself making safe, reliable and dare I say, generic images. I’m almost subconsciously picking spots I know will ensure I don’t go home empty-handed. Rather than take risks or try to make daring images I’ve fallen back on my influences. The curse of the hobbyist comes into play. We hobbyists only have a few times during the week we can go out and shoot pictures, so to ensure we feel like we’ve done something with all that expensive kit, we play it safe. I pull in my wealth of influences and I apply the cold logic of understanding I’ve taught myself, I know I’ll make a ‘safe image’, I can almost rely on it. We kid ourselves we’ve made the right choice though, after all we got what we set out to get right? We daren’t take chances for fear of failure. The spectre of Social Media haunts us these days, “Come home empty handed and you’ll have no shots to post on social media and people may forget you.”
“Play it safe, get the shots and get the likes. You’ll feel much better that way.“
I yearn for the days of taking risks again, the days of nothing to lose but I’m too scared now, feels like there’s too much to lose. Take a bad shot? Delete it now before someone sees it. Edit a bad shot, don’t save it, throw it away now. Post a ‘bad shot’, watch it either get ignored or worse, torn to shreds, so face a binary decision to defend it or delete it? If you post and be damned then you risk defaming your reputation as judged by your peers, every image posted is now considered as part of your canon. With so much history in our online profiles or simply by dint of our peers knowing us better, each image we offer will add or subtract from our reputation.
I don’t have the answer to this yet. Some may say, “Twaddle! I’m not bothered if anyone likes my images or not, I’ll do as I wish.” I think you’ll find that harder to do than you think. All artists create for two reasons, firstly to satisfy an inner need for expression and secondly to see if that expression is also felt by others. I shoot photos because I need to express myself artistically but I also crave the attention that it brings me! I don’t want to face the possibility that I might alienate people and lose the validation they supply me with.
Being an engineer by trade as I am, you develop a very analytical way to thinking. You see the world as a huge machine to be understood, it becomes habit after a while and it often may get used in areas where it’s sometimes not warranted or wished for. Striving to improve ourselves leads to a lot of introspection, be wary that treading dark paths may uncover things that are best left alone in the dark.