We appreciate photography and style by looking at the finished product without knowing or caring how the sausage gets made.
The image above may seem striking. From a compositional standpoint, it has a classic and obvious “frame-within-a-frame” and violates the “rule-of-thirds” to emphasize “symmetry.” We could talk about how the lines of the yellow frame lead the eye to the circle and the circle frames the cat’s eyes as it looks at the viewer—the lens reflecting the frame’s pattern, reflecting back off the cat eyes, and finally reflecting back into the lens itself.
And if I taught a course on photography, I’d pretend that this was all intended and that this image sprung as a fully-realized Athena from my brain and into my Nikon camera.
But this isn’t about that myth.
This is about how the sausage gets made.
I was living in a two-story apartment loft that was getting unbearably hot as the summer wore on. I finally got a ladder to contact paper over the skylights and keep the heat at bay. After papering over the first light, I climbed down to have a drink and wipe away the sweat, when one of our cats, Gibson, decided to climb up and assess “his domain” from a higher perch.
Eventually, he figured out how to get to the top and the shape started to align from where I was sitting below. I put down my glass of water, grabbed the nearest camera, and started shooting. The ladder was 8 feet from base to top, so it was only a stroke of luck that my 18-200mm happened to be on the camera and I had stupidly chosen the bright midday sun to start with my papering project. Some prompting with the fingers coupled with the evolutionary nature of a cat’s tapetum making them far-sighted, and I was able to get the cat positioned enough to create a frame-within-frame symmetrical composition involving some beautiful reflections.
Of course “some prompting” and “getting the cat positioned” are euphemisms that gloss over the much more apt and truthful reality of “herding cats” or, in this case, “herding a cat.”
Out of what would be an entire roll in the days of film, there is exactly one usable image.
That’s very common and the sausage most photographers won’t tell you about. A striking style comes from an opportunity based mostly on stupidity and a ruthless editing down from a constant stream of the basic and prosaic.
I hope the great Galen Rowell will forgive me if I pull a couple paragraphs from one of my favorite essays by him to explain myself:
After my work began to be published I was surprised when people told me they could often identify it before they saw the credit line. At first I didn’t believe them. I thought they were just flattering me. I gained some insight into how a style emerges when I saw the shoots of several well-known photographers being edited at National Geographic. I knew the hallmarks of their various styles, but in their raw film, as in mine, inconsistent work greatly outnumbered pictures with strong vision. Yet after the final edit, each photographer had created key images that unmistakably showed a unique way of seeing.
Ansel Adams wrote eloquently about the difference between external and internal photographic events. The most meaningful photographic styles are always reflections of the internal. We react not so much to what a photographer sees, but to how he or she sees and renders the subject for us. Personal style comes from within, from a photographer’s unconscious and conscious choices.
As you go through this advent, you will see images and wonder: can I ever have such vision?
As a body of work, the answer is no. If even Rowell’s was a set of “inconsistent work,” yours or mine as a body could never be a photo stream of constantly perfect images. As a single image, the answer is still no. You are not them and these images are among their best.
But do not despair, because a photographer’s best images are so because they are reflection of an internal which is not better or worse, but simply different than your own. Keep at it and I promise you that your best will be better than any of us can hope to achieve. Because those, and not every outtake, will be your best because they have your style—a reflection of your own unique internal.
Happy Holidays from me (and the team at PhotoAdvent) to you and yours!