The Virtue of the Frame Pt. III
“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
– Walker Evans
This third part may be the toughest of all. Once we know what we want our photography to do, how do we get it to do that? If it was that easy to know what we had to do to create the kind of images we aspire to, we would all take a perfect image each time we release the shutter. I can assure you that my own hit/miss ratio is somewhat lower than 1:1, your own may be higher.
How do we do it, though? How do we move towards taking the kind of images that we want to create? Again, I think there are two clues found in virtue ethics that can help us.
First, repetition. For something to become muscle memory, a movement of our bodies that we do nearly instinctively, without thought, we need to repeat that movement about 7,000 times. Tying your shoes is a perfect example. Most of us learn this series of motions at a young age and it’s intensely difficult at first. “First, the rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree…” But after a few years, we internalise the movement. We forget to think about it.
Try it, next time you go to tie your shoes. Stop and try to think about each individual step required in that process. You may find yourself unable to do it while you’re thinking about doing it, strangely.
We only learned to do that series of movements because we repeated it so many times, and we failed a lot at the beginning. But slowly, we learned and then we internalised, then we did it so much we forgot the effort of the motion.
The challenge is do continue to create pictures, examine them, self-evaluate them and discern ways of improving next time. I doubt most of us will become zen archers of photography, but we can strive to become better each time we take a picture.
Becoming a creator
The other idea we can poach from virtue ethics in becoming a creator of the images is that of the role model. The Greeks believed that when you were faced with a problem where you didn’t know what to do, you asked yourself “What would the virtuous person do in this situation?” Only it wasn’t just any old virtuous person, it should be someone you admired as an example of the kind of virtue you were trying to grow in.
For us, as photographers, I think this means reading and studying the work of others. I think that physical photographs and books are more helpful than some digital media.
I’m an enormous fan of technology, but again, because of our digital muscle memory, and the sheer amount of information we have to parse through each day, we skim photos on the internet rather than giving them space and our precious time, to allow ourselves the luxury of really absorbing them.
Taking time with a really beautiful book of photographs by a photographer you admire is a real gift to yourself. To look deeply into the images and to feel your fingers on the paper and linger, letting the image speak to you is a really important tool.
It’s important to not here that I’m not advocating trying to copy the work of your favourite photographers. That’s a futile project, and I know, because looking at some of my past work, I can see where I was trying to do just that. This isn’t about me imitating Ansel Adams or any other photographer. It’s about identifying the elements, themes, and aesthetics of the people have done it before us and figuring out how I become more myself by using those elements in my way, not by copying theirs.
Try this as an exercise: look at the work of a photographer whose work attracts you. Look deeply into the images and ask yourself “What is it about this image that I find so compelling, so attractive?” Is it their use of colour or black and white? The way they approach their subjects? What are the non-technical aspects of their work that attracts and delights me?
I’ll give you an example, when I encountered the amazing work of Bruce Davidson, a Magnum photographer whose documentary and street work is astounding, I was amazed by the tenderness with which he treated his subjects.
Davidson’s work is often focused on people on the margins; kids in a street gang, a circus dwarf, the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. It would have been easy for him to treat these subjects as convenient oddities, but he resists that.
Later I heard an interview with him where he said that relationship with his subjects was the key to these images. That relationship, that compassion, was what I experienced most deeply in his photographs. And in my photographic journal I keep a list of photographers whose work I admire and I try to crystallise an element of their work that I don’t necessarily want to emulate, but rather, to incorporate, into my own. Internalisation over imitation.
Ultimately, that is one that that photography is, it is a medium with a broad enough umbrella to allow all of us to express ourselves and find satisfaction in creation. And in understanding ourselves before, during and after the act of creating a picture, we’ll become better at it. And, ideally, in doing that, we become more fully ourselves.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about what helps you become a better photographer in the comments below.
Jack McLain is a Masters of Photography candidate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.