About a month ago, I experienced an essential “death of (my photographer) self,” a somewhat disheartening happening where my artist’s ego was tattered and ripped; it seemed all that I learned up to that point was deniable. I was critiqued by a harsh and seasoned eye, someone that could dissect every aspect of the photo from tonal discoloration to eyeline discrepancies: “He looks like he’s staring straight up her fuckin’ ass!” Every flaw, at least two in every picture in my portfolio, was exposed. They were things I chose to ignore in production or Photoshop and hoped would always be overlooked. But not by this person. Under their qualified critique, every bit of my laziness and lack of knowledge was put under a microscope.
I was then shown examples of phenomenal photography. Works by amazing photographers ranging from Sally Mann to other people around my age. And they were amazing. The amount of detail, thought process, conceptuality, and technical perfection dropped my jaw. For two weeks, I thought to myself “I could never be as good,” and debated putting down my camera altogether. These were people that immersed themselves into photography, where the principles guided their lives. Me, I’m too scattered. I love film, cinematography, basketball, physical fitness, academic success, financial planning, menswear…the list goes on. And I wish to be great at all of these things. But I couldn’t see myself committing as fully as the masters.
Clarell Williams-Contact Sheet
Though still unsure about that, I realized soon there was no point to basking in melancholy. No, I may not eventually be as great as the religiously practicing, but I promised myself I would no longer make work that wasn’t fully developed. Every piece from then on would and will be an extension of myself. This means research, emotional investment, and pinpoint execution will go into every piece. Every new piece would aim to be timeless in my portfolio rather than a phase of over-milked blacks or indicative of a period where intense rim-lights are my taste. If it’s in my portfolio, it must exhibit artistic maturity and growth.
Keep in mind these are personal goals. I don’t expect all togs/illustrators/artists to work this way. It’s a very exhausting mentality because it sort of means being somewhat displeased with everything you do. Even if you do everything right, two weeks will pass and you will wish to go back and make it better. But you can’t. You need to watch that piece sit in your portfolio and remember what to do better next time. It’s about growth of work, not revision and covering up your tracks. The idea is to document your advancement.
To clear up, I’m not saying that one shouldn’t use self-evident techniques in their work. Amazing pieces utilize milky tones (http://www.larajade.co.uk/) or intense processing (www.davehillphoto.com) but done artfully. Experimenting with such techniques must be done to get to that level. And I think that’s the big point I’d like to get to…experimentation. Trial and error. Many can’t be bothered to try a technique until a shoot’s going to hell or until they realize they need a serious Photoshop procedure to save their photos. Experimenting…on one’s own agenda…is the way I’d like to hone my craft instead of doing it on a client’s time.
This photo of my buddy Clarell was such an experiment. I was looking to try some new techniques I’ve seen buzzing around the interwebz. In a recent Dave Hill BTS video, I saw that for once he was not using his ring light. Dave Hill is all about his detail so I was wondering how he going to get his fill (punny eh?). His inventive solution: put a large umbrella behind his camera and bounce into it. This would create an overall fill that’s still on axis with the camera lens.
I tried that here along with another foreign technique: hard lighting as key. I’m not one for dramatic shadows usually but I’d come across a lot of work recently that used it as a creative way to create tonal levels. By mixing the two techniques, the aim was to have a photo that was rich in detail while still having contrast in its lighting. When shooting film, this can be a little unpredictable. I was developing in 1:1 D76 so I knew some of the detail would be lost in the processing. However, when I scanned the negative I was very pleased with how much richness the blacks still preserved. My PS process consisted of burning shadows back into the milked blacks and cleaning up dust.
From production to PS, the shoot was purely to try new things. I took away techniques I’ll now selectively use in my work later that I wouldn’t have otherwise tried. Just adding to my bag of tricks while getting a decent photograph in the process. It might not sit timelessly in my portfolio but it’ll hold a place for a while. Point-and-case, keep shooting.