One shot

So there I am, searching for an image to serve as a header for the Festival of the Trees coordinating blog. (I had decided to switch to a theme with less annoying fonts.) It’s late morning, and I’ve been going through my photos for close to an hour. I’m getting frustrated, because I only have a small number of what I’d consider acceptable tree photos, and none of them look much good cropped to banner dimensions. I’m also feeling some frustration at the fact that I haven’t done anything that you might call creative so far today.

I glance up and find myself gazing out the window at a sudden snow squall. I relax and watch the swirling flakes for half a minute, then on an impulse, grab my camera and go out on the front porch. With the camera on wide angle and natural light settings, I shoot three pictures almost at random. Snowflakes are already beginning to hit the lens, so I scurry back inside. Reviewing the pictures on the LCD display, I delete two of them right away. But it occurs to me that the third — a shot into the sun, which was half-hidden by a scrim of snow cloud — might well yield a good banner image. I upload it to the computer and look at it in Photoshop, and sure enough, at about 50 percent magnification, there are plenty of likely banner-size images. I crop and save three in quick succession, and the first one I try at the Festival blog looks fine (I keep another in reserve at Flickr, just in case). It fits the season, which is nothing if not festive. Only after the photo is up and in use as the new header do I take the time to look at it more closely — the kind of looking that would have to precede image-making in almost any other medium than photography.

Sketch artists may draw a fairly negative moral from this story: look how totally inattentive one can be and still end up with a half-decent photo! Snapshot photography is obviously an invitation to semi-distracted, careless looking rather than genuine seeing.

All that may be true. But I am ridiculously pleased that I managed to get a good image largely “unencumbered by the thought process,” as they say on Car Talk.

Is it fair to say that I was inattentive, though? I don’t know. Thinking back on it, I’m pretty sure that I had the image I wanted to take already in my mind’s eye before I went out on the porch. Looking at the two images I got out of the one shot I saved, it’s evident that a couple things were working in my favor: the snowflakes were effectively backlit by the almost-shining sun, giving maximal contrast with the trees behind them; and the fact that it was the edge of the woods, as opposed to somewhere in the middle of it, meant that there were plenty of outstretched branches to suggest motion and energy.

I’m dwelling on this not to blow my own horn — I really don’t think of myself as anything but the rankest of amateur photographers — but because I’m fascinated by the creative process. In the close to two years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve found myself taking fewer and fewer shots of each subject. Quite often, the first picture snapped turns out to be the best, and I know it when I take it. But quite often, too, I’ve been looking at the subject for a good long time before I get the camera out. Take the recent deer skull pictures, for example: the skull sits right outside my door, in the lilac bush above my stone wall. I’ve been looking at it for months. The view from my porch? I take it in for at least a half-hour every morning.

I watched myself on Sunday, when I went for a walk around the mountain with the camera. As usual, I took a certain number of shots of things simply because they looked cool, and more or less knew when I took them that they wouldn’t be keepers. I got close with a couple, including a strikingly grotesque red maple tree that I’ve been photographing off and on for months without success. I think I may have the right angle now, but probably the light needs to be different. I spent a lot of time standing and looking at things, and found that simply by gazing with no particular expectations, a couple of times a viable shot would appear. One of the better photos featured a clump of turkey-tail fungi I’d never noticed before, and I took it with very little deliberation. But I’ve photographed other clumps of turkey-tail fungi, so quite possibly I already knew what angle to shoot from.

Has photography made me a better writer? I don’t know. More than anything, I suppose, it provides me with a creative outlet when I don’t feel up to writing, and the results often make good writing prompts, too. (This post doesn’t count, being more analytical than creative.) Has it changed the way I look at things? I doubt it. But I think it has reinforced some of the lessons I had already learned from three and a half decades of writing poems: to trust my impulses, and to work with whatever comes most readily to hand.

I’d be interested in hearing from other writers who have taken up photography. What, if anything, do you think you’ve learned from it?

14 Replies to “One shot”

  1. I love reading your blog…normally. But since My Niece and her family were lost I have done nothing but focus on that. She is found and her Husband needs to be. He is nestled somewhere in the trees.
    The festival of trees I ask please yield him up! Back to us safely. Getting more prayer to keep him warm and his stamina up is why I am making this comment. Best to you and yours!

  2. To Liz who left that first comment, I wish the very best for your niece and her family. I’ll keep her husband in my thoughts, and yes hope that the trees yield him back safely.

    To Dave– I started taking photographs about a year and a half ago, and it has changed my life. I see light in a way I never consciously did before. I am suddenly aware of so many things going on around me. I have free attention for the smallest of things, a spot of red berry in an otherwise drab pile of brown detritus. You are absolutely right about the first photo being the one that often captures the image. I have noticed that as well.

    I see photography as part journalism and part art. It’s a combination that I particularly like because I feel that way about my own writing as well.

  3. What a great banner, Dave. I think it’s hard to capture falling snow, it must have been just the right kind for you.

    I think I’ve been taking more photos geared towards my blog, so I suppose that’s part journalism and part art. I also use photos in my art work. I do think the camera helps one to look harder, the same way that sketching does, as long as one is really immersed in the moment and not just randomly snapping without looking deeply.

  4. 1)i love the banner. i have been waiting for a snow like that. i love how the woods look with snow between its branches.

    2)some of my best shots totally surprised me–i look them instinctively and forgot about them. i’m not sure what to make of this–some shots ARE good because you consciously try.

    3) thanks for sharing :)

  5. Well, I could go on at length on this most interesting and resonant post, but will have to be succinct — need to get ready for the working world day.

    What have I learned from photography?
    That my “corner of the eye, semi-conscious attention” is sufficient in many cases for catching the most salient detail.
    That my “seeing” is most literally embodied in my flesh — move my head a bit one way or another and the composition changes, tightens, unravels. It takes “point-of-view” to an almost mystical level…
    That a complex, inscrutable machine can be a pellucid filter.

    I like what Cartier-Bresson had to say:
    Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing a meditation.

    I’d extend his thought to my way of writing as well. Maybe those of us who strive to write well, draw well, find photography a gift because its immediacy rewards those habits of meditative looking we’ve cultivated.

  6. Good post. I like photography because I just do it and don’t worry too much about getting it “right” – I don’t think of myself as a photographer the same way I think of myself as a writer. And like you I love the spontaneity and surprise of it – I often don’t know if I’ve gotten anything usable or good until I’m in Photoshop. It’s more purely fun than writing or design, which I’ve spent my life doing, and having an outlet for it on the blog – especially for the more abstract or emotionally-illustrative images – has been a great pleasure.

    Liz – will be thinking about your family and hoping for the best possible outcome.

  7. i am demonstrably not a writer, but i can take good photos sometimes. i learned with film. black and white. many years ago i had a darkroom. i would take about 100 shots every day, three rolls of bulk film loaded into resusable cartridges, and develop the film and make contact prints. so one 9 x 11 print would have a lot of tiny pictures to inspect with a magnifying glass. at first i would look at my results and wonder what it was i was trying to take a picture of. while i could see something in my mind as the subject, even through the lens, the printed image had no focal center. i don’t mean out of focus, just not showing what i wanted. i did learn frame and pay attention to light after a while.

    aside from the cost of equipment, the chemicals and film and paper cost about one cent per image for contacts. now digital images are free. not counting the camera and computer.

    contact prints—-just lay the developed film on the paper and expose to light. then develop the paper.

  8. I hesitate to say I’ve “learned anything” from photography because that suggests there’s something consciously intellectual going on, and my snap-shooting isn’t that calculated. When I see something interesting, odd, or unusual, I snap it. I guess in my mind it’s more like taking notes than taking pictures: you don’t have to have much/any technical skill to scribble something in a notebook.

    I guess the only thing I’ve discovered through the process of taking blog-pix is that the “numbers game” applies. If I take at least a handful of pix almost every day–and some days more than a handful–almost every day there will be at least one worth sharing. The rest, then, were “just” practice for that one worthwhile shot…but I never know which shots are throw-aways and which are keepers until I’ve taken them.

    So I guess the delete key is my most useful photo effect.

  9. Thanks for all the comments. I’ll try and respond to a few of the points in a moment.

    First, though, if folks are wondering what the first commenter was talking about, the latest story about her niece’s missing husband is here. Liz, I really hope the guy is still hanging on. He sounds like a real fighter.

    robin andrea – I liked your conclusion,

    I see photography as part journalism and part art. It’s a combination that I particularly like because I feel that way about my own writing as well.

    And yes, like you I think the camera has led me to pay attention to different things, especially smaller things, in the same way that maintaining the Smorgasblog has led me to become a more attentive reader of blogs.

    marja-leena –

    as long as one is really immersed in the moment and not just randomly snapping without looking deeply

    “Immersed in the moment” sounds about right, yes.

    I’m glad you liked the banner.

    fog – Ditto. I really enjoyed reading your blog and checking out your photos from Peru this morning.

    i’m not sure what to make of this—some shots ARE good because you consciously try.

    Yeah. But sometimes conscious trying gets in the way of a good shot, too. That is perhaps the most puzzling situation: you know it’s photogenic; why can’t you take a good photo of it?

    Lori –

    need to get ready for the working world day

    Rats! My plan to cripple the American economy by destroying the productivity of its workers fails to find another victim!

    Nevertheless, I like your lessons and the quote, and I can’t improve on your conclusion:

    Maybe those of us who strive to write well, draw well, find photography a gift because its immediacy rewards those habits of meditative looking we’ve cultivated.

    beth – I think we’re very much on the same page. Thank Whomever for Photoshop! Re: “more purely fun,” if writing helps me procrastinate on other things, messing with photos helps me procrastinate on writing.

    roger – Thanks for reminding us of what photography used to entail (and still does for some professionals, I guess). At one cent per print, I could almost afford to do that myself (cost was the main reason I had never considered taking up photography before), and I must say you make it sound kind of attractive!

    I know what contact prints are, but until this moment I’d never thought of the poetic possibilities in the phrase: contact prints. Hmm.

  10. Lorianne – The comparison with taking notes is interesting. Of course, apostles of the cult of the moleskine say the same thing about sketching – but they usually add that one’s sketching will improve with practice. I dare say the same is true of point-and-click photography – and of note-taking. (Very few people really know how to take effective notes, ya know.)

    the delete key is my most useful photo effect

    Ha! Yes, indeed.

  11. Photography stimulates my writing and vice versa. After a couple of years of doing both daily I’ve developed an intuition; when I capture worthwhile images I often know which ones they are before scrutinizing them on the computer screen. Then of course there are the complete surprises, when an image shows details I didn’t consciously notice while taking the shot.

    Often while I’m photographing there is a part of my mind which is putting together sentences and paragraphs to accompany the images. Words and images potentiate each other.

  12. That’s interesting. I wish I could say it happened that way for me, too, but in fact I usually don’t think of the words to go with the photos until I have them up on the screen.

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