“I’m a perfectionist, and I always think that I can do better than what I have done, even if it’s good.” -Luciano Pavarotti
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” -Shunryu Suzuki
As I sit here at my computer, eating a cheese sandwich and wondering where 2017 went (I must have blinked as it whizzed by), I am contemplating PHOTOGRAPHY: What are my creative/visual goals? What are my business goals? What separates the professional I am becoming from the hobbyist I once was? When will I feel like I have arrived?
I can answer the last question immediately: NEVER.
Rip my camera away from me and smash it on the ground if I ever start thinking I have arrived. The old adage that there’s always more to learn is never truer than in this medium; photography is a vast and limitless art form, part-metaphysical and part-scientific, constantly evolving, and pregnant with infinite potential.
There are a lot of artists who are really good at it. Way better than me, in fact.
Scroll through Instagram until your eyes hurt and your ego is punctured: #streetphotography #portraitphotography #naturallightphotography
And when you need a break from the infinite scroll, grab some photography books from your local library and feel the knife of self-doubt twist in your gut: Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Wee Gee, Diane Arbus, Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman…
The more I learn about photography, the more I realize I have yet to learn. Every time I complete a photo project, or process the images from a portrait shoot, I experience the same mental shift:
First, there is the initial joy of looking back on many successful images, often noticing new breakthroughs and feeling truly good about my work.
This joy is intense, brief, and swiftly followed by the second wave:
“This is shot is good, but I can do better.”
I am critical of my own work. I don’t think this is a “negative” quality to have; in fact, I would argue that any artist worth her salt has the same quality. No sooner am I done savoring the fruits of a day’s shooting than my mind goes to corrections, critiques, calculations of how to execute it better next time.
Right now, my short-term goal is to be more deliberate with my framing. While shooting, I will often find myself silently chanting “scan the frame, scan the frame, scan the frame” to myself. As a portrait photographer, my focus in on faces, and moments, and emotions, and connections, and oh-wow-that-child-is-jumping-into-the-air-I-need-to-capture-the-energy-of-this-decisive-moment!
And then I get home, and realize that in my excitement, I’ve grazed the toes on one of the child’s feet with the edge of my frame. And it’s maddening.
Small errors in framing don’t necessarily make-or-break an image, especially candid shots where mood and expressiveness rule, and take precedence over rigid compositional rules.
But framing matters to me. It matters already, but I want it to matter even more. I want to be continuously scanning the four edges of the rectangle through which I see the world. I want to think about framing so constantly, that eventually I stop noticing that I’m even paying attention to it. I want to make perfect in-camera crops in my sleep.
The New Year is coming, and with it, the opportunity to make resolutions. Mine should probably involve calories, and weight-bearing exercise (“burns fat while you sleep!”), and maybe even getting my car’s interior vacuumed and detailed.
But I know I won’t make those resolutions.
In late January when my colleagues cave and order Shake Shack for lunch, my resolution will still be intact, giving me something to strive for. Next month, next year, and if I am so fortunate, for decades to come:
“I will always continue working to be a better photographer.”
The best part? I don’t have to lift a dumbbell or pass up a piece of pie to work on my resolution ;)
There is an old Yiddish saying about our general lack of control over most of the events in our lives: “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”.
This translates to: “Man plans, and God laughs”.
At a recent family photo session, I was reminded of this adage. I even coined a new variation on it, and felt pretty chuffed at my own cleverness:
“Adults plan, and Children laugh”.
Or, sometimes they cry:
As a professional photographer, it is my responsibility to arrive at my clients’ shoots prepared: I’ve scouted the location. I’ve discussed ideas with the client. I’ve created a loose shot list in my mind.
And sometimes shoots go perfectly to plan, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Other times, life happens, children cry, and nothing goes to plan. And that’s an even more beautiful thing.
“Oh no,” you may be worrying as you read this, “this kooky photographer is gonna shoot 500 frames of my children crying and hiding their faces, and then I won’t have any good shots to send to my in-laws, and our family will have a terrible time at our shoot”.
Take heart:”embracing the unexpected” doesn’t mean walking away without any useable shots. Often, children warm up during a shoot; a big part of my job as a photographer is to coax a smile or giggle from an initially-cranky child. And on those rare occasions when my tiniest clients just CAN’T EVEN, and need a warm blanket and a nap at home, I work to reschedule the session for a time when spirits and energy levels are higher.
So, NO: I’m not suggesting that you have to print a photograph of your child crying on your annual holiday cards (though that would certainly be refreshingly honest amidst all the holiday pressures to be a “perfect” family); instead, I simply want to remind you that 10 years from now, when your children are starting their first jobs or traveling off to school, your favorite shots to look back on just might be the imperfect ones: the running noses, the teary eyes, the shyness of a three year old hiding under her mother’s coat…
And sometimes an unexpected moment leads to a better shot than I could ever plan…
“I’m not photogenic. You always manage to look so good in your pictures, but I hate seeing photos of myself.”
“I would love to book a session with you…after I lose twenty pounds.”
“I had a session with a photographer one time, and it was so awkward…I didn’t know what to do. He kept telling me to ‘look natural’, but I just felt so uncomfortable: Where do I put my hands? Should I smile? Am I standing weird?”
One of the reasons I love portrait photography is that it’s a dance of opposites: the subject’s beauty is revealed in his/her imperfections; the most sublime photographs are often captured during the fidgety, unconscious moments between set poses.
Sitting before the camera with all your flaws on display is fine; in fact, it’s ideal. Make the decision to be seen you just as you are, and suddenly you attain an air of effortless self-confidence.
Take, for example, the self-portrait photograph at the top of this blog post: when I look at this photo of myself, I feel sexy, chic, mysterious, stylish, cool…When I took this photo of myself on an early January morning, I was freezing cold, hoping no one would accost me in the suburban powerline field I had chosen as my “studio” that day. I was 210 pounds. I was wearing a second-hand faux fur coat and control top pantyhose (where all my Size D ladies at?)…I shot this with a $20 manual film lens on my first DSLR body, also bought second-hand. I wore slippers and kept my red platform heels (again, second-hand) in a Trader Joe’s tote while I lugged a prop chair, gear bag, and tripod along the powerline trails, trying not to break my neck.
But after I set up my camera on the tripod, took a few test shots of the chair, set my focus and exposure, and took a seat before the silent eye of the camera’s lens, I made a decision: I dropped in. I breathed in, I breathed out. I began to play. Changing poses, gazes, expressions. Totally at peace with myself, and accepting of myself, even if only for as long as the shutter was open.
I made the choice to be camera-ready.
I can (and do) give clients some pointers to prepare them for a shoot: bring a few outfit changes. Black, white, earth-tones, and neutral-colored clothes are always a safe bet. If you like make-up, wear some. If you play an instrument or have a cat you taught to jump through hoops or you inherited a box of your grandma’s flapper dresses, bring it. Brush your teeth. Cut your nails. Shave parts you want hairless and grow out parts you want bushy. Show up on time.
But we all know it takes more than donning a perfectly starched dress shirt to look relaxed and competent in your professional headshots. And posing for maternity portraits is less about the colors of the cloth I drape you in, or the way you choose to style your hair the morning of our shoot, and more about YOU, your emotions, your changing body, your growing family, your hopefulness and solemn wonder at this new life that is joining yours. It’s about being fully present with yourself, with me, and with the camera that I just happen to be holding.
Like any true photographic artist, what I want to document is the real you.
It is my hope that as you prepare for our shoot, or prepare to work with any photographer, you will make the decision to embrace exactly who you are right now, wherever you’re at, in this moment. I will help guide you there, but this initial decision to be seen in entirely up to you.
Once you are camera-ready, we can begin.