Up Your Photographic Game

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Flood Plain Sunset by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I just received an email invitation to ‘Up my photographic game’ from Nikon with a tour through Chile and Easter Island in the company of some photographers. Price not specified (that I could find) but doubtless several or more thousand dollars.

As a travel expedition, yes, I can see merit in this. But as to ‘upping my photographic game’, well, put anyone with a good (presumably Nikon) camera in a fairly remote yet scenic destination and you’ll end up with some ‘ooh and aaah’ photographs much admired by many.

But will that make you a better photographer? Unlikely. The premise of such expeditions is off base. Implied is that it’s the location that makes the photographer, not the photographer him or herself. It’s also a good way to make money for photography tour guides and travel companies. And that’s fine – as long as you are well aware of just what you are getting and just what you aren’t.

So I’m not going to follow up with this. I just need to travel a few miles from my house to find spots – like this view of Columbia Bottom Conservation Area – that give me all I need to improve (or not) my own photography.

Given, too, that I am inherently a solitary photographer who finds the company of other photographers actively inhibiting, the attraction of a shepherded tour diminishes yet further.

Photography can be an irritating hobby. In every direction there are people wanting to take your money. Again the promise is that you can somehow buy yourself into being a better photographer.

You can’t.

Yet many seem to fall into that trap, the most insidious being the equipment trap and the deliberate marketing of expensive gear as somehow ‘professional’ and thus desirable for your photographic growth. It isn’t. It’s only desirable if you are looking for rugged and long lasting equipment that is less likely to fail you than flimsier stuff. Again, nothing wrong with that. But be aware.

No, to be a better photographer you need become a better artist. To do that you need to develop a style and vision that is meaningfully yours and is always beneficially informed by knowledge of the works of great photographers. And you do that anywhere.

 

 

 

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What Counts?

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Girl and Seagull by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I’ve been taking photographs for a long time now.

Decades.

Sometimes seriously, sometimes less so. But it’s only been comparatively recently that I’ve spent much time exploring the work of others.

I’ve looked at a lot of photographs. It’s easy to do so when so many are up on the web. Many of mine are too.

Lots of the pictures I’ve looked at have been technically superb. Lots have garnered considerable praise. But the awful truth is – if it really is awful – is that I don’t like almost all of them.

In this era of freely exchanged ‘likes’ and ‘loves’, it feels heretical to make such a statement. But it’s true.

This doesn’t please me. To find myself as some sort of photographic misanthrope isn’t really where I want to be. Yet – I look at these pictures and all I feel is an indifference and coldness. They don’t speak to me.

Perhaps if nothing spoke to me, I would worry. But the work of the greatest photographers does. Not perhaps the readily trotted out Ansel Adams’s of this work, but renowned but maybe lesser known artists such as Cindy Sherman and Garry Winogrand. Looking at photography books by these artists (Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” usually tops my list) is reassuring. Reassuring not least because many of these photographs would not fare well in today’s online ‘like and love’ environment.

I need thoughts like these as a kind of backup. A backup for a certain sense of disappointment that I get when I put up a photograph (such as the above “Girl and Seagull”) only to find it to be ignored or treated with indifference on the ‘like and love’ websites. Because part of me really wants that kind of recognition, shallow though it may be.

For “Girl and Seagull” remains one of my favorite photographs ever. One I regard as one of my very best. A feeling that has not wavered in the face of indifference over the years since I took it.

It counts.

I need to remind myself of this from time to time. I’m only human after all.

The Total, Complete and Overwhelming Irrelevance of Camera Equipment

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Maybe I needed to fill my basement with dozens of cameras and lenses to learn this lesson.

Maybe.

Maybe it’s just age and experience and the niggling realization that my best photographs are completely independent of whatever I used to photograph them.

But at last it has sunk in. Good photography is totally, completely and overwhelmingly independent of whatever is used to make the image.

All that counts is what you do with what you’ve got.

Still – I hanker after and buy more equipment. Use it too. But that’s simply for the pleasure of a new toy. Often without planning it, I squeeze out a good photograph if I’m feeling and acting sufficiently inspired.

This is what I need to concentrate upon.

Two Trees in a Cornfield II by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

 

 

The Prompter Room

magiclampedits

(It’s been a while since I’ve added commentary to these regular prompts, but this week’s unprecedented political actions by a certain president and/or his administration have elicited a visceral response that, as a writer, I must write about.  So that’s your heads-up: some might consider what follows a rant, but it’s really more of a call to action.  I apologize in advance if it’s a little disjointed.)

The First Amendment is not an accident.  My deeply held conviction, supported with a lot of evidence, is what might do this country in to where we cease to exist as a vital democracy, as a Constitutional democracy, is not terrorism or a weak economy but what will do us in is a secret government.

Bob Woodward

This is hard to write.  My thoughts and distress are swirling so swiftly in my brain it’s hard to corral them into some semblance of written sense.

Never…

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On the floodplain

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Pylons on the floodplain by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Last Saturday after an invigorating morning marching with the Women’s March in St. Louis, I headed out to more sparsely populated regions.

Mostly it was to enjoy a natural area and get that reassuring sense of gravity that such places always provide even in the face of a clearly provoking political situation such as we have now.

For I have been disturbed, sleepless even, at the thought of how low the Presidency will be brought and how much respect the institution will lose. For this will happen. It’s already happening.

But I can forget this, for a little while at least, while walking the floodplain. The ground beneath my feet will survive as it has already through the massive river flooding that at times put everywhere I stood and looked at beneath water. There’s a pole at the confluence about 20 feet high that represents the 1993 high water mark. Yet the trees survived this and thrived anew in the silt enriched earth once the waters receded. Thinking of these things adds a little perspective. People can deny reality, but reality has a sneaky way to catching up with you sooner or later. The earth endures and will do so long after I’m gone just as it did before I was born. I find this thought reassuring.

A Pointless Journey

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So I finally got around to watching the complete trilogy of movies comprising “The Hobbit”. This after numerous – and I mean dozens – of viewings of “The Lord Of The Rings”, a set of movies that continues to captivate and enthrall.

I’d read enough to be forewarned that “The Hobbit” films were not up to that standard. What surprised me was how far below they fell.

On the surface, everything seemed to be in place. Martin Freeman is a fine actor and well suited to the young Bilbo. Many of those who had done well in the Rings trilogy returned. The story itself from the book was alright. Not a carefully constructed epic, but enough for perhaps a good movie.

Instead we got three, and, much in the manner of butter scraped too thinly on bread, a description Bilbo used in “The Fellowship Of The Ring” to describe the effect of the ring’s possession upon him, there is simply not enough sustenance to carry the set.

Furthermore, far too much of the “Rings” trilogy’s script is recycled, sentence for sentence, in these newer movies to far lesser effect. Plot elements alien to the book are introduced, mimicking those of the “Rings” to the point of parody. The engagement with Sauron is perfunctory, falling into cliche and pastiche and wholly unsatisfactory. Indeed, it was at this point in “The Battle Of The Five Armies” that I gave up on my second viewing of the set deeming it simply uninvolving.

Uninvolving. Sad really. The entire exercise was a waste of potential. Perhaps a single feature length film could have been put together that would have satisfied. Some of the scenes, chiefly those involving Smaug the dragon, were well done, although elements (such as the melting gold dwarf king) were simply ridiculous. The special effects were technically superior to those of the “Rings” trilogy, yet came across as somehow less satisfying through overuse and frankly absurd situations.

Some have compared the failure of “The Hobbit” to Lucas’s similarly poorly regarded “Star Wars” prequel trilogy.  This is valid. Similar faults plague both sets of movies. Less interesting characters, less charismatic and convincing acting performances, story lines that sprawl and dissipate dramatic interest.

Shortly after I’d viewed “The Hobbit” trilogy, I watched the latest “Mad Max” movie, “Fury Road”. The contrast was stark and wholly unflattering to Jackson’s films. Here instead was a tightly edited, focused, and completely enthralling fantasy film that managed to be both viscerally exciting and thought provoking at the same time.

“The Hobbit” turned out to add nothing to “The Lord Of The Rings”. Fortunately, the first set of films is strong enough that nothing was taken away. That is a relief. But I can’t help but wonder at what might have been.

Analysis of a photograph

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Sand and silt from the Missouri River by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I spend a lot of time writing in generalities. Photography is very amenable to such pontification, after all, it is an art and art inspires – if that’s the right word – a lot of prolix writing of limited distinction.

But does that stop me? No. After all, this is on my time and my dime (if I actually got paid for any of this).

But for once I want to get a bit more specific. As in the analysis of single photograph.

This was taken by the Missouri River in St. Louis County. I was standing on the sand and silt left behind by a drop in the water level and doing so from an unusual vantage. I was on the edge of Pelican Island, a small nature reserve normally separated from Sioux Passage Park by a deep channel of the main river. But on Monday afternoon the drop in the river level had left only a small fast flowing channel dividing the two, a channel, moreover, that was dotted with rocks and stones. Enough for me to hop, with only one slip into the shoe-filling water, from the park to the island.

So the view that presented itself to me, as I stood ruefully considering my soggy sock and pickling foot, was not I sight I’d seen before. Nor was it a sight I was likely to see again unless I got lucky.

So perhaps it was fortunate that I had three cameras with me, one digital, one with color film, one with black and white. The films remain undeveloped; this photograph is digital.

So what about it?

It’s a basic landscape designed to highlight the revealed sand and place in context with the river. Why did I choose to feature so much sand in the foreground?

Two reasons. Firstly I wanted to emphasis the extent of the newly revealed beach. All that you see there is normally under water. On its own, this could have been uninteresting beyond making that point. But the sand has its own appeal, and much of this is due to the low angle of the nearly setting sun. The shadows highlighted the ripples left in the silt by the water flow and the dog and footprints turning what would have been a relatively featureless view into something more interesting. I photographed a trail of fresh footprints, this acted as marker of time and as a marker of movement, my movement. In this way, the picture becomes personalized – a critical component in imparting value to the image.

Alone, the sand would have given the picture an interesting aspect but it would have been location independent. I didn’t want that. Part of the value of the photograph comes from its unusual situation and including the river background provides that context. Context in terms of place and in terms of situation. The water is low; that is clear from the picture. Again the light enhanced the far background, bringing out both the bare trees on the St. Charles County bank and the railway bridge running parallel to U.S. Route 67 road bridge.

The result is a time (winter) and situation (low water) stamped photograph of a interesting location with strong personal resonance.

That’s really all I want out of a picture.  It doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else, but it needs to be an image I can return to ten or twenty years from now and find equally interesting. It doesn’t have to be an artistic triumph or a technical tour de force; if it is, those qualities are coincidental. Truthfully. I really don’t have it in me to work it any other way, not because I couldn’t (I probably could if I really tried) but because that would move me away from what I enjoy about photography.

Looking Back

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Brighton Station 1980 by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Well, it is that time of year after all. A time for retrospection and resolution.

I have a couple of confessions about photography to make. I’ve tried to deny these thoughts, but as time goes by, I find myself only confirming them more strongly than ever. They are:

  • I like my own work better than others.
  • I really do not like the work of most other photographers.

There are clear disadvantages to such thinking. It take me right out of the community of photographers where the essential ‘in’ is to like, demonstrably so, their work and to hope, via some sort of polite quid pro quo, that others will like yours. It encourages isolation. It works against making any effort to put on some form of public display.

Note that these confessions do not ascribe any sort of artistic worth to my own work. It may be awful or passable but in either case it doesn’t matter – I still like it. As to the work of others, well, in this case artistry comes first. Which, as I said, limits what I like to pretty much the established or upcoming art photographers. Popular photography, on the whole, leaves me stone cold. More than stone cold in truth, repelled is more like it.

This is why, if anyone looks at my online portfolio, you will find only a few images that fall into what one might call the popular look. Few of these were intentionally photographed, usually, almost entirely by accident, I ended up with an approximation of a popular style. Displaying these elicited precisely the same sets of multiple likes and loves that one might expect but only a very rare few cases did my own appreciation of the image match that of others. But I still put them up; some part of me still longs to join the in-crowd and bask in that kind of glory.

But leaving that aside, this photographic solipsism also has advantages. Firstly, although many of my photographs fail me touch me despite my best efforts, enough do. The ones that do continue to touch me, even as years pass by and my own photographic efforts evolve and change. This are the pictures I go back to and I draw real sustenance from them. There may be technical reasons within the photograph for this, but those alone are not enough. There has to be an emotional resonance. It make take no more than the jogging of some long lost memory for this to happen, and the picture itself might be unattractive to another observer. Beyond unattractive, simply meaningless. But for me, it counts.

After all this time, I now realise that’s all I want from my photography. It was there from the beginning. So why did I spent years chasing the photographic pipe dreams? Not to mention spending a fortune on unnecessary photographic equipment.

Oh well.

 

In Another land

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In Another Land by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

In a world where a button press in Lightroom or Photoshop can apply an infinite variety of tones and colors to any image, why would I spend time and energy using a strange, uncertain film like Lomochrome Turquoise to generate a weird looking image like this one?

Precisely because it is uncertain. All I do to control the colors is find a subject and the light to illuminate it. ‘Control’ is a very loose word here. The amount of light striking the film generates the unique color balance and if you are looking for a reproducible look, well, look elsewhere. This is a once off photograph and all the more valuable because it is such.

Randomness is a well established tool, understood by artists and mystifying to technicians.  For technicians control is paramount. Digital photography has been a gift to such thinkers, but just as much effort went into trying to tame film photography too.

In many cases, one wants a consistent and reproducible look. But it’s far too easy to get hung up on this and to squelch the discoveries that an aleatory approach provides.

So I deliberately embrace techniques that shunt me out of the conventional. By no means are all the results worthwhile, but enough are.

I don’t consider this an unlearned or naive approach. As I indicated above, it’s pretty much mainstream in the world of real art. But it does remind me, sadly, just how many photographers are not artists at all.

 

 

I Liked Them All When I Did Them

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Property For Sale by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Although I have strong views about the relative worth of photography, views that ultimately only really reflect my assessment of what makes art worthwhile, I am perfectly willing to suspend or modify them when it comes to looking at my own work.

For I don’t take pictures with art in mind, I take them because an interesting view has presented itself. The results can be variable. What seemed interesting one day might seem mundane the next and yet again interesting further down the road. That’s why I keep most of my photographs and periodically review them. Storage is cheap these days.

But even the most artistically uninteresting of my own photographs can have great merit when considered differently. Most importantly as a record of history, place and people. I’ve lived long enough that many dead faces stare out at me from my archives. Such pictures work to confirm – or deny – memories. The most valuable, unsurprisingly, are those from my youth. There aren’t many of those, but there are enough to fill out my backstory.

Everything I photograph today, even the pictures that I have embraced primarily as art, works on the same level and their worth increases proportional as time passes by. We tend to get so caught in the present that it’s easy to forget or dismiss this, but it’s crucial to the value of a photograph. In these days of rapid fire Instagram and Facebook photos, catching, seemingly, every whim of our lives, it becomes even harder to look at this clutter and see historical gold buried within. But it’s there, and should be saved. Unfortunately, with so many of us trusting our visual record to the bits and bytes of today’s technology and the business model of social media, we have lost a lot of control and are more vulnerable to be being erased that we might think. That’s why it’s so important to make at least some prints of your work and keep those with the same dedication that we used to keep the prints from the days of film. But making prints requires extra effort, and often the next moment had crept up on us pushing aside what just happened. And then it gets forgotten, the cell phone gets lost, the memory card formatted by mistake, and the social media platform shuts down. Saving these memories happens less than it should, and a lot less than it must.

But back to picture taking. I called this post, ‘I Liked Them When I Did Them’ and in truth, with a far smaller number of exceptions than one might think, that’s true of all my photography. I do look back and see every artistic mistake possible written clear and upfront in my images, but that really doesn’t matter too much. Always there are some – a few – that really hold up however you choose to judge them.

That’s why I photograph.