The ones that got away

Years ago, I was taking a train from Chelmsford to Norwich in the UK to see the football team I follow, Norwich City FC, play a couple of home matches. The journey is relaxing, bordering on dull, as the train gently winds it’s way through the Norfolk countryside. It was a mid-October morning, so the sun was closer to the horizon, and as I had a couple of ‘travelers’ with me, I just sat back in my seat and stared out at the meadows and pastures that presented themselves to me through the passenger’s car window.

Somewhere along the way, I saw a group (Herd? Flock? Squadron?) of horses playfully running across what I assumed to be a farmers field. The light was hitting them in such a magical way, that it created that surreal 3D effect that we’re lucky to enjoy from time to time. The clouds in the sky were ‘on again, off again’ in that familiar English weather pattern, and occasionally, long streaming rays of directed sunlight highlighted smaller areas of the scene as the monstrous cumulus clouds rolled past.

I’m a city boy through and through, and not only that, I’m too lazy to look up the breed -but the horses were patterned like Holstein cows. (Who knows why I can remember several breeds of cow, -Holstein, Jersey, Guernsey, Angus, Limousin, Highland.. but I can’t seem to retain the names of horse breeds? Probably something to do with how cows taste, and which ones give you milk.)

It was one of the most magnificent scenes I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. And I’ve seen Niagara Falls. In fucking winter!

I seriously started to think about how I could get off the train to chase those majestic beasts through fields of magical light! ‘How badly will I fuck myself up if I jumped from the train?’ ‘Is it worth it to come back?’

Well, I didn’t do either, and that’s why I don’t have a picture of those playfully beautiful chargers at the top of this post.

What I DO have, is a picture of dollar store reading glasses that I got from the lost and found at work.

As I briefly thought about the consequences of the self inflicted harm to my person by from jumping from a moving train, I noticed my glasses in front of me on the little pullout table that most trains and planes have. The same light shining on the horses was streaming across them. I grabbed my cell phone in my pocket; I figured I had better be quick, lest the train turn a bend, or some trees, or buildings obstruct the light, and quickly banged out the picture above.

As far as I’m concerned, it came out great! I love the hard side lighting, the shadows, the composition…. and best of all? It’s one of those pictures that ‘comes to you.’ I didn’t have to do shit, really. The way the light was coming in the window because of the positioning of the train, the image simply presented itself to me. Didn’t even have to get up from my seat!

You might be wondering why I didn’t just fire off a few shots out the window with my cell phone. Well, I’ve taken enough bad photos through train, or plane windows to know that the chances of getting a decent shot are slim, at best. Dirty windows, motion blur, glare, poor perspectives, even rain against the outside of the window make things difficult:

See what I mean?

Perhaps at some point in my life, I’ll actually try to get a picture of those horses in that light, but it’s a long shot. I’ll probably return to that area again, but I seriously doubt the convergence of all of the things that made that scene seem so special to me will happen when I go looking for them. 

That’s probably my biggest ‘the one that got away’ memory. 

Oh well, at least it gave me a new found respect for the likes of Constable, and Callcot, et al.

Then again, every time I put on my dollar store readers -of which, I must have about twenty pairs scattered around my home, I may just occasionally be reminded of those horses…

How can I get better if I don’t even know what ‘better’ is?

It’s only natural that for those of us who enjoy creating anything that can be construed as art, are always striving to improve our skills. We draw upon knowledge we have acquired, mistakes we have made, and the work, -or (if we’re fortunate enough) the opinions of those whom we admire.

Then we do the work. Lots of work.

But what kind of work? If you’re the stubborn sort like me, and decide you’re going to eschew almost all formal training, that can be somewhat hard to nail down. Although, in my defense, I had never planned, nor wanted to pursue any photographic avenue that led to financial gain. I just loved (and still do) to take pictures of anything, and everything.

If you do take lessons for photography -and I highly recommend that you do, if you’re seriously considering going into some sort of career in that medium, you’ll be taught the methods that say, Richard Avedon, or Sebastiao Salgado  used to get such stunning results. Then, you won’t have to blunder your way into figuring everything out, as I did.

But you’re still going to have to do the work. Lots of work.

And if you want to continue to grow as an artist, of sorts, you’re going to have to constantly ask yourself straight up questions like, “why is so-and-so’s shit better than mine?”

There’s the million dollar question.

And no, I don’t have all the answers. What I do know, is that I’ve seen my photography improve quite a bit in the last few years, or so. I’ve become better at taking shots of things that I like; and more importantly, I’ve gained the confidence to say what I like, and why.

Take this shot, for example:

The wife and I went for a walk along the beach late spring this year. The water was still much too cold to jump in, but we waded around near the shore. I was using a little portable off camera flash to try and defeat some of the harsh mid day shadows. I set the self timer so I could run out and be in the picture with her, but I accidentally set it to 2 seconds instead of 10, so I captured myself running like an idiot trying to get into the shot -much to my wife’s amusement.

Now, I could break down the above image, drawing lines upon it, and discussing how an imaginary line extending from my hand would perfectly intersect my wife’s head, right where it meets the horizon; or how the bulk of clouds on the left side balances out my disproportionately large (and cropped) mass on the right….

But that would all be bullshit. Besides, I’m usually quite suspect of art critics/analysts  who are always applying that sort of junk to classical painters. It’s an established fact that plenty of painters whom we consider today to be masters broke down, or graphed out’ their work before putting a brush anywhere near their canvas, (my mother did this a lot!) but I’ll bet you a whole box of Mike and Ike’s that plenty didn’t.

The just liked things a certain way for their own reasons. In the above shot, I just like things a certain way for my own reasons.

Believe me, I know that there’s plenty wrong with it:

-beyond the fact that I blew it with the timer, the composition is shit. Everything’s in the middle: subject, horizon.

-the fill flash that I set to defeat the harsh mid-day shadows didn’t defeat enough of them.

-there’s a distracting twig sticking up in the lower left corner.

-the shot isn’t ‘square on’ with the horizon. It’s a bit off axis, creating a feel that the horizon isn’t straight, which it actually is.

So now that I’ve proved that the shot is shit, I’ll tell you why I like it, and used it here as an example:

It means something to me.

That’s it. It’s a shot that has plenty of ‘wrong’ to it, but to me, it’s got more than enough ‘right’ about it; and in my opinion, that’s all that matters. Could I go back and do it better from a technical standpoint? Yup, most certainly. Would it elicit the same feeling in me? Nope.

And that’s the whole point. The way it is, perfectly captures the way things were when I took it.

So how does this relate to getting better, or even figuring out what ‘better’ is?

Apparently ‘better’ is the opposite of shitty. Figure out what shitty is, apply it to your pictures, and reverse it.

The top picture was taken around 1990 with black and white slide film, (not recommended) and eventually half-assed duped to digital. It too, managed to survive the Great Image Purge© of 2008 by hiding in the bottom of a box. It was covered in dust, dirt, and possibly a little cat puke before I cleaned it up, and duped it.

For all it’s faults, I still really like it. Proof that sometimes all the thought, and training in the world doesn’t matter; all that’s needed is one camera, one finger, and one asshole.

Doing shit you don’t like.

…it’s called work.

   I was speaking to a professional photographer friend the other day, and the topic of shooting stuff that you don’t like, or in a manner that you really dislike came up. Not specifically what you’re shooting, but how you shoot, and process the images. (Off the top of my head, I can think of very few images, or scenes that I wouldn’t shoot. I’m not bothered by supposedly extremely offensive stuff by, say, Robert Mapplethorpe, who’s technique I think is on par with the very best. I’m not shocked by some of his racier stuff -I just think it’s silly.)

That goes for how you process stuff as well. I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that I really, really don’t like high dynamic range processing. What would I do if someone offered me a job, but wanted me to do that? I suppose it would depend upon how much they were paying me. 

I also suppose, that makes me a whore, of sorts.

The late writer Nick Tosches -a favorite of mine, liked to use a line that his father told him when he was starting out in journalism as a young man, and was seriously concerned about selling out, or not staying true to his literary integrity: “We’re all whores. The objective is to be an expensive whore.” In other words, everyone is a whore, in a manner of speaking, to someone or something, so with that in mind, try to make your whoring ass pay as much filthy lucre as possible. 

So, at this point, I’d probably put on my sunglasses and get to work doing whatever someone asked me to do. Well, that is, if I actually know how to do it.

And that leads me to something else: Knowing whether you can do something, or not. Seems to me that just about every artistic endeavor I can think of, there’s a propensity for the creator to fool themselves (at least in the earlier stages of their career) that they’re a lot more capable than they think.

Myself, I’ve been in enough situations as a musician, where I’ve been humbled into the shadows at the back of the stage. I’ve never claimed, nor would I ever have accepted a gig posing as, say, a jazz guitarist, but I’ve been on stage with absolute monster players; the likes of which makes you think, “why the fuck am I even here?”

No one I ever played with intentionally went out of their way to make me feel that way, but my point is, I’ve had my musical ass handed to me enough to know that it’s wise to be honest with yourself in these matters.

When you reach a level of notoriety, or expertise that you become known for, you can pick your battles, so to speak. At this point in his life, I think it’s pretty safe to say that nobody’s asking Don McCullin to photograph their daughter’s 11th birthday party. 

But hey! Give me the date, I’m probably available!!!

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