I was flicking through a pile of photography books at my local bookstore recently. There was the usual selection of how to “improve your selfie”-type books and, in a rather superior way, I picked one and idly turned the pages. I was arrested at one point by one the headings on a page towards the back of the book:
Pose questions, not answers.
In a blink this book, Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs by Henry Carroll, apparently aimed at beginners, with pages of detail on how to choose shutter speeds and apertures resolved many of the conceptual photographic conundrums I’ve been struggling with for a while.
I had started working a bit harder on my photographs about 10 years ago. I did courses which taught me loads about the nuts and bolts of taking pictures, both silver nitrate and digital. I even had my own darkroom. I learnt about Photoshop too. And I got quite good. Not Cartier-Bresson or Martin Parr good, but able to produce a well exposed picture and print it acceptably well.
But there was still something missing.
Apart from a brief period flirting with gritty urban street scenes and graffiti, most of my photographs were nicely composed beautifully coloured pictures of places we travelled to. You know the sort of thing – you’ve probably got some of these in your portfolio from ages back.
I realised some time ago that I wasn’t really satisfied with these pictures. I mean, there’s nothing actually wrong with them. In focus, sharp, lots of colour, some of them undeniably pretty.
And there I thought I had identified the problem. The pictures were more about the colour than anything else. And there’s a limit to the number of pictures of Tuscan brick walls I can consume. So I determined to cut out the colour. Monochrome would be where it was at. If Ansel Adams could take monochrome landscapes then so could I.
So there was another learning curve – how to get landscapes to work without all the colours to back them up. And it was hard. You have to relearn all the colour contrast tricks that worked in full technicolour. You learn all the tweaks in Lightroom that make clouds stand out and how to fix all that yellow (yes, yellow) grass.
And so I persevered.
And ended up with pretty black and white pictures. They might even have been good enough for picture postcards back in the day. But they were just as pretty as my colour efforts. You can even see some of them on this website. They’re not bad, just not what I would ideally be creating.
And so to the bookstore. Henry Carroll’s Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs leapt into my hands. I have to say I wasn’t holding out great hopes for it but I was interested in what he was saying to beginners.
But it was an eye opener. At last someone was saying out loud what I’ve been muttering for years. He talks about seeing first of all. He tells you to forget all the complexities. He tells you to use the camera in automatic mode, progressing to aperture or shutter priority later, and forget all about Manual mode.
He spends the first 30 pages discussing composition and framing. Not in so many words but using bombastic headings like “Get Close. And then get closer.” All this before talking about camera settings. Talk about a breath of fresh air.
He succumbs to talking about camera settings in the end, but from a very practical point of view, offering strategies for keeping shooting pictures while learning how the camera works.
Then towards the end he drops his bombshell (for me anyway.)
Pose Questions. Not Answers.
What many of my early pictures did was tell you all about the thing I was photographing. And I was photographing things. Very literally.
But maybe I’m being a little hard on myself. I had after all started working with Big Stopper neutral density filters which slowed all movement to a crawl, lending an abstract air event to complex seascapes.
What I hadn’t been able to do until I read that heading was explain what I wanted my photographs to do in general. It provided a reason for some of the pictures that had found their way to my walls. It also provided the explanation for why I found some of my early mono pictures more satisfying than others.
So now I need to get out and take more thoughtful images which leave something for the viewer to get hold of and worry away at for a while.