One experiment I’m making is to photograph very close to my home, on a daily basis. I take a walk along the same path, every day, and so I’m seeing the same things, with subtle changes from day to day. One of my goals is to avoid a lot of thinking about what to photograph, or even if the photo I’m about to make will be good. I’m going for ‘intuitive’ as opposed to ‘carefully reasoned’.
The reasoning part comes afterward, when I download the images from the CF card and look over what I’ve done in the past walk or two. I’m looking for what works, and what doesn’t. I’m looking for things that catch my interest, regardless of whether that particular photo worked or not.
This morning, I came across the following quotation, which I think sort of sums up the process I’m trying:
Imagine I throw a spear into the dark. That is my intuition. Then I have to send an expedition into the jungle to find the spear. That is my intellect.
All this is driven by a few photos I’ve looked at recently – in particular some photos by Eliot Porter and Christopher Burkett – which I can only describe as broadside views of forest. I’ve looked at those photos, and looked at them, trying to imagine the process by which the compositions were made. They’re compositions with a billion things in them. There seems to be no compositional structure to them, and yet the photographs delight me.
I’m the first to admit that I am a photographer of very little compositional skill. I have not taken classes in design, although I expect such classes would help. I can manage a composition with one thing in it pretty handily. On occasion, I can pull of a composition with two things. Three is on the edge, four is right out. A billion is so far beyond my limit that it seems clear to me that some other sort of mental process is involved.
I’d like to be able to make photos like those. I can’t reason my way to them, so I figure I’ll try something else, and see if it works. This brought to mind a story about a computerized expert system I read about – an expert system to replace an employee who directed the troubleshooting and maintenance on a dam. The dam was very complicated, and although this manager had a very clear understanding of “water coming out here means a problem in this apparently unrelated spot”, he could not articulate this knowledge base. So they trained an expert system, using day to day problems and this expert’s diagnoses. And before long, the expert system was making diagnoses that matched what the human expert was saying. And the funny part of the story is that because of the way this expert system was implemented, it was not possible to derive an articulate path of reasoning for the diagnosis.
So my hope is that I am trainable as an expert system is. I’ll make a lot of photos, and I’ll look at them, and perhaps slowly I’ll train myself to make this ‘Eliot Porter’ broadside sort of photo. This one works. That one doesn’t. Don’t worry about articulating why, just make more like this one and fewer of that one. Lather, rinse, repeat. This process would be prohibitively expensive if I were using film, but my marginal cost for each exposure is essentially zero, so it might work for me.
And if my plan doesn’t work, well, at least I got to take a lot of walks with the camera. There is no downside.