Whenever you begin something new, you tend to learn a lot in a short time. Here are 3 insights I gained in my earliest years of photography:
I learned to expect the unexpected.
Things sometimes happen quickly when we are composing a photo. There can be a lot of activity in the frame (or almost no activity), yet something or somebody new can suddenly become part of it. The photo above is from my second-ever roll of slide film. On the right you can see a man on a bicycle entering the frame. I had no idea he was there when I took the photo, and was so surprised much later to find this ghost-like figure in the photo. Photographer Gary Winogrand once famously said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”
I learned to pay attention to the quality of light.
Often, the quality or beauty of a photo is dependent upon the light. Take the same photo on an overcast day, and it may look drab and uninteresting. This isn’t to say that overcast days are bad for taking photos–good photos can be taken in a wide variety of lighting situations. (Notable, though, is that Lee Friedlander didn’t even take photos on overcast days.) It’s useful to pay attention to the intrinsic qualities of the light in order to optimize it.
And it takes so much time to figure out how various factors affect the final photo: is the light muted, diffuse, intense? Coming from one direction? Fluorescent, LED, neon? Is the sky pink, greenish, bright blue? Is rain or a storm on the way, or is there any haze in the air? All these elements, and more, mean we have to figure out how to compare the final photo with what was going on around us at the time, and observe what effects the quality of light can have. And find some way to remember the lessons the light has taught us.
I learned the value of the documentary photograph.
Looking at a photo many years later, you may not know exactly why you took it but still be glad you did. Among other things, photography has been a visual diary for me. It helps me remember the places I’ve been and things I’ve seen. Photos can also become valuable documents of things and places that no longer exist.
We never know the full significance of the photos we take. They’re a picture of a moment, and that moment is gone as soon as you’ve taken the picture. That place–or that person, or cloud, or animal–is already changing before you’ve even walked away. We don’t know until much later whether those changes will accrue quickly or gradually. We don’t know if we’ll ever be there again, ever talk with that person again. The relentlessness of change is masked by its ordinariness.
This has been so evident to me in hearing people’s responses to my Toronto Flashback series. Taken in the 1980s, they show a city that many feel no longer exists.