When you make an image, is it of what’s in front of the camera or what’s four inches behind it?” ~ Dewitt Jones
I read this story long ago in a Dewitt Jones column, and I have never forgotten it. A stranger encounters two old stonemasons at work. “What are you doing?” he asked each of them. “Laying stones,” the first mason said. “Building a cathedral,” the second mason said. The first had a job; the second had vision.
Last week I mentioned why photographic vision matters. It defines the work we do and why we do it the way we do. It determines the artistic choices we make. And I think that when we clarify our photographic vision we become better photographers.
Photographs come from who we are. They reflect our way of thinking, seeing, and being. When we define our vision, we understand what we are trying to capture in an image and become more mindful in our approach to making that image, increasing the likelihood of expressing the image we saw in our mind’s eye and conveying our intended meaning. We frame that cathedral.
When I first began to photograph, my images were all about passion, play, and mindful seeing. Beyond that, I spent no time at all thinking about what I was doing or why I was doing it. It took some time before I realized I needed to commit to a personal vision quest.
For this journey I set out to explore some questions:
Who I am? Why am I doing this? What interests me? What is it I want to capture? What has personal meaning for me? What do I want to achieve in my work?
Over the years my photographic vision has changed. That is to be expected as we grow as photographers. These days my work mostly reflects my love of the pointillist-inspired photogravures of early twentieth century pictorial photographers, their subtle tonal and tactile aspects and impressionistic soft focus, often strikingly ambiguous. Using a zone plate (with high-grain film) rather than a lens enables me to explore my interest in dream states, liminality, memory, and metaphor. By introducing ambiguity, it nudges the boundaries of abstraction and helps to shift perception toward a sensual experience, tempting the imagination to see beyond the literal. Drawn to the obscure, the element of enigma, I love the mystery and dark beauty these lensless images convey visually.
But I have a second interest in powerful compositions of human moments and images that capture the ironic, the absurd, the misplaced, and the wit and play of contradiction. What has remained consistent is my goal to create effective, meaningful, unforgettable images that entice viewers to look and then to look again.
What is your photographic vision?