Photography and the Art of Discipline
“Jerry Avenaim’s images of supermodels and celebrities have captivated readers of almost every major magazine. Combining mastery of lighting techniques, the ability to guide his subjects to the limits of their expressiveness, endless energy, and abundant chutzpah, the L.A.-based shooter has attracted so much press coverage that when we asked him to dig deeper into some of the famous stories about his career, he replied. ‘I don’t know what else I can add. If you dig any deeper, I’ll be buried.’” -Excerpt from American Photo Interview by Mark Lapin.
During this interview I surprised myself, realizing what I could have witnessed firsthand during my years in photography world. This decade has seen a great evolution in how we create photographs, most notably film vs. digital. Photographers state they are “going back to film” while others sing the praises of digital and what can be done in post production. At times I feel like I am straddling the 38th parallel in this debate because I am, and always will be, a double agent.
To this day, I don’t regret stepping forward into digital. Nor do I lament not being able to step back into film, because I still have a variety of equipment to choose from in both avenues of image capture. Each camera I own is a tool, one that serves a purpose of capturing what I’m trying to convey in my photographs. By having all of these options at my disposal I am never compromising my photography, or my vision, by restrictions inherent to technology or available films.
In the end, the image is not determined by the equipment used but by the person who was using that equipment. If given a pinhole camera, many photographers I know would be able to make a photographic essay shooting with only that. Of course, knowing your equipment and maximizing its potential is what will make you the photographer you are, not a visit to the camera shop and buying the most megapixels or the top shelf films.
I started shooting large format at a very early stage in my career. This gave me the discipline that I feel photography requires. To study my subject, compose my image, and when the moment comes, to capture it. This practice has carried over into every format and medium I shoot today. The patience, precision-all my images were born from mastering the properties of large format film cameras. By today’s standards a large format camera is neither portable nor frugal, but to me the discipline I learned from using it is priceless and I carry it with me everywhere.
However that’s just me, many photographers, it seems, were out sick and missed the class on discipline and patience. In my fashion photography workshops I see photographers use what I affectionately call the “spray and pray” method of shooting which is simply holding down the shutter on their camera and PRAY a good shot comes out. Many forget there is a person on the other side of their lens and to make a great photograph both sides need to work together. A photographer can’t simply accept what is in front of them and take a picture, that’s not being a photographer, that’s not even being a photo journalist, that’s paparazzi at best. There is a very different feeling in hoping one shot out of 10 is the one you want as opposed to knowing the one shot you took is exactly what you wanted.
Digital technology has really increased “spray and pray” shooting, and many forget that the original purpose of digital technology was to eliminate the limited exposures presented by rolls of film. Today, digital photography is much more than just “film-less shooting.” It has changed photography for the better in so many ways that I would need another blog (with sequels) to detail how. The only downside I can really acknowledge is that I feel digital-only photographers have not learned the discipline of photography like I did with my first steps in large format.
Go out and take pictures of anything, as many shots as you want, just don’t shoot longer than 5-10 minutes. Next pick up your digital camera and disable your LCD screen by covering it with a piece of 2 inch paper tape (this is LCD safe) and prepare to take the same images again. However, this time, instead of limiting your time shooting we are now limiting your images- do not shoot more than 10 – 15 images (up to 30 if you were shooting medium format), but take all of the time in the world. And finally, do not look at them until you go home or to your studio (you could even wait a day). Treat those files as though they were film.
With only so many chances, each shot is now more valuable than the last. Odds are, moving forward, you’re not going to just push the shutter without thinking first. Engage your subject and instruct them on posing; convey the expressions you like. You can’t wait for them to naturally give you that spray and pray shot, after all, you now only have 10 to 30 shots at most. Was it a landscape? Has the lighting changed or will it be changing? Will the patience and discipline of waiting a few minutes or even over an hour present the golden hour light and make the image that much better?
Having the knowledge and the equipment is a valued attribute in the photographic community. However, it is all nothing without patience and discipline. A photograph is made by what is on both sides of the lens, and in a photographic world full of quantity it is wise to distinguish yourself by the quality of your images.