Keeping it real

There often comes a time in the creative world when the practitioner becomes mired in the process, the means of creating, fulfilling the expectations of the audience / customer and somehow the whole reason for doing it in the first place gets lost. I like musical analogies, so here's another one. How often after the over-produced album and the stadium tour, do bands, singers and musicians long for the simple approach? Back to guitar, bass and drums and the small clubs and the contact with the audience? While sometimes this is misguided nostalgia for an ill-remembered better time that didn't actually exist, this idea of returning "back to basics" has an undeniable appeal. Over complication, over equipped and the decadence of excess tend to blunt the creative edge somewhat and when merely going through the motions becomes the norm rather than just a fall back position, its time to re-assess.

I think I'm heading for my Johnny Cash moment. In his last years, together with producer Rick Rubin he produced a series of albums stripped to the bone. For the most part, just guitar and voice. There was nowhere to hide, and nothing to hide behind, but he wasn't found wanting. 

If we have any pretensions about attempting to create anything that might be described as artistic, then I would contend that we need, from time to time, to return to what started us on that path. To remove the "fluff" i.e. the irrelevant and the unecessary. For me photography should be about what I see, my response to that and my interaction with the viewfinder and the shutter button to capture it, and nothing else. Anything else justs gets in the way. It is about the pictures we create after all.

It may sound ridiculous, but I really hate having a shelf full of cameras. Far from seeing it as some kind of achievement, a bunch of materialistic trophies showing what I've managed to achieve, I see it as a failure. A failure to be convinced by what I do and how I do it most of all. Many years ago, the owners of a picture library paid me the compliment of saying "We like your pictures, they have a point of view". However there are times when that point of view tends to get obscured and when it gets to a situation when my only creative act is deciding which lens to put on which camera, then I know something has to change. 

This is of course a somewhat over-dramatised version of whats actually going on, but it will serve to make the point. I'm also convinced I still haven't found my photographic "eyes". I still find myself seeking the way I can best express myself visually. In reality, I found that years ago, but I've never regarded that sense of disatisfaction and the constant searching for something better to be a bad thing. I write time and time again about the dangers of complacency, of certainty and repetition. I like exploration and experimentation and even if, as is mostly the case, I end up doing things in same way I always have, at least I've arrived there via a process that involves some thought and the consideration of some alternatives. The way that I do things, for me, has to be constantly re-evaluated and re-confirmed. I constantly ask myself "Is this what I want?" "Is this the best way?" "Have I explored all those alternatives?" By constantly asking ourselves these questions we surely come to a more honest way of presenting our work, a way that isn't just the result of justifying our inadequacies by confusing an "artistic vision" with "I can't do it any better, so I'll pretend thats what I intended all along"

For me, photography isn't just a hobby or a way of making a living. In many ways it defines who I am. I walk along sometimes, snapping away, thinking to myself "How I did get so lucky?" What exactly led to this situation whereby I can earn a living doing what I love? The answer to that is of course what it usually is. Patience, persistence and hard work. However that doesn't stop the guilt, as if somehow there is something wrong in making money out of enjoying myself. I still have to convince myself that I have nothing to prove and the constant questioning about "Are the pictures any good?" never goes away no matter how many pictures I sell.

And again I see nothing wrong with self-doubt. If we assume we have got it right, we are an artistic and commercial success, whats the point in continuing to try, to attempt new things. Surely once we loose our ability to self-criticise and doubt our abilities then we have entered the world of the smug, which is no place to be.

Yesterday in replying to a comment about my Camera of the year post, I wrote (completely spontaneously) about how much I liked my Olympus E-PL3. This got me to thinking "If I like it so much, how come I don't use it more" The answer of course is that its an amateur camera, and I'm not an amateur, I'm a professional. I have to show I'm a professional by the camera I use. Its required. All complete BS of course, but am I alone in thinking those thoughts? So managing to ignore my need to prove myself in the great outdoors to all those passers-by who are surely making judgements about my photographic prowess because of whats hung around my neck, I eventually got out of the door with aforementioned E-PL3, 20mm and 75mm lenses.

Of course, I had a great time and I was pleased with the pictures as well. It was helped by some spectacular light. The sky was so blue, the air so crisp and clear that the sunlight constantly illuminated the textures of everything it shone on. Just before sunset the land and the clouds were bathed in a golden glow. In short one of those days that photographers who do what I do dream about. 

And did my "amateur" camera let me down? No of cause it didn't, in fact it captured what was in front of me rather well. Is it as "good" as a Nikon D800E? No it isn't. Does that matter? No it doesn't. Or more correctly I should have written No it shouldn't in answer to that question. 

So am I about to follow photographically in the footsteps of Johnny Cash? Will I abandon the over complicated, the over specified and the over priced in favour of a simplified method of making my pictures? Actually I have no idea. When I was out doing it I was sure I would, returning home that conviction became less certain, and if this follows my normal pattern it will disppear forever. FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt) rears its ugly head yet again. But then whats new about that? Its probably endemic to being a photographer in 2012. We are bombarded by the next big / new / better / more expensive thing. Its what most of our economies are built on, consume or perish. The trick I've found, is to use this uncertainty and everything that goes with it to fuel my enthusiasm. I may keep looking for my "precious" but I know I'm never going to find it, but the search throws up some interesting experiences. I may not have much clue as to where I'm going with this and I have no doubt that my uncertainties and dilemmas will persist. However I know one thing for certain. Yesterday, there was magic in the sunlight. I saw it, I captured it and I brought it home with me. And any camera that lets me do that is worth its weight in gold. 

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