Photography Matters

I love a beautiful photograph.  I get lost within it, my eyes wandering around the frame seeing every little detail, every part of the story that the image is telling.  In an era where some people say that photography is now a commodity, where some photographers decry the proliferation of consumer and smartphone cameras, where video is becoming mainstream on all of our devices and where it sometimes feels like attention spans are diminishing I think a beautiful photograph is more important now than ever.   A beautiful photo can make us feel.

A recent phone call from a client reminded me of this in an unexpected and emotional way, and I’d like to talk about it for a bit.

When you work with clients it goes without saying that clear communication is of the utmost importance.  This is especially true when it comes to setting and managing expectations; you should know exactly what the client desires and you should clearly articulate what you can provide.  Because I take this approach with all of my clients and students I was surprised to receive a call from a wedding client, a groom whose wedding I shot last year, in which I was asked to re-process their entire wedding.

Yes, the entire wedding.

(I’ll pause for a minute here until all of the wedding photographers reading this come off of the ledge at the thought of re-processing an entire wedding)

For context:  I love black and white wedding photographs.  I am very clear with my wedding clients that, unless colour plays a significant role in the image, most of the photographs they receive from me will be black and white.  I recalled how happy this couple was with their images last year so I admit that I was puzzled by their request.  When the groom finally told me his motivation I felt like I had been run over:

The groom’s fiancé had a significant medical emergency years earlier which had required brain surgery to correct.  This surgery saved her life, but also left deficits in her long term memory.  Now, only a year after her wedding, she was unable to remember key parts of the wedding and was understandably upset about it.  The groom asked me if I could provide all of the wedding images in colour in the hope that it would help preserve her memories of the day.

I was speechless…
It is hard not to internalize a request like this.  I have so many amazing memories from my wedding: the gorgeous golf course where we were married outdoors on a gazebo, my wife walking up the isle in her beautiful dress, how great our wedding party looked, the colours of the flowers, the food… I simply cannot fathom being unable to recall one of the most important days of my life.

I was happy to oblige, of course, and the photos took on an entirely different meaning to me while I prepared them for my client.
Just recently, I had a conversation with a friend whose relative was getting married.  In total they were spending over $15,000 on their wedding.  When my friend asked them about their photographer they said that they couldn’t afford one, so they were just going to have their friends take photos on their iPhones and email them to the bride and groom.

Sigh…

While I admit that I am biased on this subject I just can’t imagine spending that much money on temporary things like the facility, the food, the flowers, etc but not having a beautiful and permanent record of my wedding day.  Our memories will eventually fade and being able to look back on these moments in our life is so important.Photography is important on so many levels of course and not just as a reminder of our weddings.  We document history and reference historically significant images all the time.  Beautiful photographs are works of art, hanging in some of the most prestiges galleries in the world.  Photography helps us document our weddings, the birth of our children and so many other special moments in our lives.  Strong commercial photography may help to sell a product or support fundraising efforts for a charity or NGO.  Sometimes good photography does nothing more than bring simple joy and pleasure to our lives as artists.  It is all good.

Whatever the reason, photography matters and we can never forget that.  What we do as artists is so important and I got hit over the head with that fact as I re-processed this wedding… all done so a beautiful bride has an easier time remembering her special day.Until next time…

Ian

The Wall

Photography can be a fickle thing at times:  some projects involve countless hours of planning, execution, blood and sweat, while others seem to materialize out of nowhere and come together quickly.

I was recently in Toronto for a week of work that included a 3 day street photography workshop, a photo walk with my friends at Fujifilm Canada, a day of private education with a student and a few other meetings with some of my peers.  It was a busy week, productive and incredibly fun.  On my first night in the city I walked past a brightly lit wall on one of the busier city streets.   I love shooting silhouettes, so of course I had to stop and shoot for a few minutes.

Walls like this offer so many photographic opportunities:  slower shutter speeds (in this case anything below 1/125th) will catch the entire wall when it is lit, but when you speed up your shutter speed you will catch some lights on and some off as they cycle.  The magical thing about this is how random it is… you never really know when you are going to catch the lights on or off.   Add in the variety of people walking past and the rapidly changing weather that week and it became so much fun to shoot at this spot.  Each night I would spend 10 or 20 minutes at the wall, coming back to my hotel room with some frames that didn’t work and a few that I liked.  Post production on images like this is very quick, usually just a black and white conversation, possibly a crop and adjusting the contrast as required.

While this series came together quickly it is worth noting that it only happened because I found a good location while out wandering, and then I was willing to invest the time to go back to it repeatedly to make photos.  Never forget that photography is an active process, you need to be out there!

I hope you enjoy this short series.  Until next time,

Ian

The importance of reflection and editing your work

Recently my friends at Fujifilm Canada asked me to put together a collection of images for a small gallery showing.  It was an honour to be asked of course, but it also served as an opportunity to review my work… something that all artists should do from time to time.

Reviewing your work with a critical eye is an important part of growing as an artist.  It is how we see where we are succeeding, learn where we are not, see if we are repeating ourselves in our work and determine if there are gaps that need filled or new skills that need to be learned.  This process is made even more powerful when a third party, somebody who we respect, can look at our work with complete objectivity and provide us with honest feedback and recommendations.

One of the dilemmas for me when assembling a body of work for a gallery showing is the diversity of my photography (as seen above).  While street photography and travel photography make up a large part of my work, I also spend time photographing portraits, weddings and landscapes & cityscapes.  It is relatively easy to put together a gallery when you are asked to show a specific aspect of your work; but, when the request isn’t focused, there is often an urge to show all of your favourite images.  This can result in a gallery that lacks cohesion (something that is very important when showing a series of images together in print).

The following contact sheet shows some of my best images that have been made over the years.  Individually, I love all of them.  There is a lot of visual dissonance, however, when viewing them together as a body of work.

A better approach might be to consider the following questions when putting a series together for a showing:

  1. What is the purpose of this gallery?
  2. Is there anything specific that is trying to be said, or is there a story to be told, with these photos?  Or, are the photographs being featured purely as art?
  3. Do I want the viewer to feel anything specific when they look at the photographs, or should it be left to interpretation?

After some thought, review and discussion with the curator of the gallery, we decided to focus only on my street photography and not my travel, wedding or portrait photography.  While this decision meant that I would not be showing some of my favourite images, it also meant that I could quickly shift my attention to a much smaller number of photos.  These photos would be featured as artwork, rather than a series of related storytelling images, therefore I could focus on selecting my favourite street images with an eye for ones that would compliment each other when displayed side by side on the wall.

The next step was to create a “fat edit” that included my final candidates for this small street photography gallery.  This edit can be viewed in the contact sheet below:

While viewing these images as thumbnails like this, the next decision that I had to make became clear to me:  Do I go all black and white for cohesion, or show a mix of black and white with colour images?  Looking at the fat edit of 20 images, there were 14 black and white and 6 colour.  My immediate concern about the final 10 images was:  what if I end up with a gallery that is lop sided toward black and white?  Ultimately, after seeing how the curator intended to print, frame and hang these images, I was comfortable including a mix of black and white with colour images.

After some thought and discussions with trusted friends (again, reach out to those who will give you honest feedback), the final selections were:

During this process, which was as much about reflecting on my work as it was preparing for the gallery showing, the following thoughts occurred to me:

  1. I love the direction my work is heading in with regard to the use of light and shadow.  I will continue to focus on this aspect of my photography.
  2. Every one of my final selections was taken candidly.  I have hundreds, if not thousands, of street portraits where I interacted with my subjects but not one of them made it into the final selections.  I need to think more about if this just confirms my love of candid photography, or if I should place more focus on my portraiture in the future and develop that aspect of my work further.
  3. I tend to shoot very close when working on the street, filling the frame with my subject.  I do love, however, the images I’ve taken where the environment dwarfs the subject.  I have made a mental note to create and include more of these compositions in my work moving forward.

During this process I also deleted almost 400 photos from my library.  I think it is important to only keep and show your best work, but I also recognize that our definition of “best” changes over time.  I usually go through a cycle where I love a photo when I first take and process it, only to not like it anywhere near as much when I look back at it 3 or 6 or 12 months later.  I think this sometimes happens because I loved the experience of taking the photo more than the photo itself, or because I have simply grown as an artist and my expectations have changed.  Either way, I find whenever I spend time reviewing my work like this I always end up deleting photos from my library in addition to having new thoughts for what I want to shoot in the future.

This reflection is a valuable process, one that I encourage every artist to go through from time to time.  It gives you the opportunity to celebrate successes, to see your growth over time and to gain objective data with which you can goal set for the future.  When I view my own work I see so many areas for improvement, but I am also proud to see it laid out like this:

That last point is important:  Don’t be the proverbial “angst ridden artist”.  I see way too many people taking this process too seriously, like that is the only way to be a “real” artist.   That is false, of course.  Art should bring us joy, both the final product we create and the process of making it.  We should reflect honestly, we should identify areas for improvement, but we should also be damn sure to celebrate our successes too.

I’d like to go back to the gallery showing to express my final thought…

Seeing these photos in print, side by side on the wall, was amazing.  So many people have uttered the phrase “a photograph isn’t real until it is printed” and I fully agree with this sentiment.  A photograph is so much more than digital ones and zeroes and you develop a whole new appreciation for your work when you hold it in your hands or see it up on a wall.

Many thanks to Fujifilm Canada for this opportunity.  Now, as my friend Valerie Jardin likes to say, it is time to grab my camera and hit the streets!

Cheers,

Ian