On Photography

This is how it happens.

When you are ten years old, your parents give you an Instamatic camera. You burn through dozens of film cartridges, capturing snapshots that one day you will treasure as memories of a special time. Years later you clean out the closet and run across that old camera you haven’t thought about in years, and remember the good times you had together.

So you buy an entry-level basic digital camera and kindle a casual friendship with this oddly-shaped black or white or silver or pink device and begin taking snapshots again - because that’s what they are - and you realize that they aren’t bad and that this might actually be fun. You don’t know it yet but that casual, easy friendship is on its way to becoming a full-blown, torrid love affair that will never let you go.

Over time you begin to notice that there is a common theme to your pictures, a sameness that represents the opening act of your photographic voice. More and more, and without any conscious or deliberate effort on your part, your pictures are increasingly of buildings, or gardens, or bugs, or kids, or sports events, or birds, or pets, or farm animals, or bridges. And at about the same time you begin to notice peculiar little things in your pictures that are at first puzzling but that soon become annoying, irritating, vexing, and infuriating. You don’t quite understand what it is about them that bothers you but like that annoying itch you can’t scratch, they linger. Congratulations: your snapshots are about to be promoted to photographs, and your casual friendship with the camera just changed: you’re now going steady.

And how do snapshots become photographs? It’s not about the camera, or the lenses, or the subject matter. It’s about the person behind the camera. It’s about you. You have become a photographer. You have learned the difference between looking and seeing, and those annoying things in your pictures that bug you have now become instructional moments. They still annoy, but now they offer an opportunity to extract tuition value from them. You are more open and accepting and self-aware, and every image represents a lesson, an opportunity to learn.

Something else happens as well. You begin to see the world as a photographer, to view it through the lens brightly - even when there is no lens. You experience the world as a series of memory captures, the raw material of storytelling.

A hunger has begun to gnaw at you now, a hunger that can only be satisfied by shooting. You and your new lover become inseparable. You take your camera to the grocery, to the movies, to dinner with friends. And then something subtle happens: when you’re out there shooting you become frustrated because the camera shutter isn’t fast enough or the lens isn’t long enough or the memory card doesn’t hold enough.

So you begin to do research. You haunt the bookstore, seeking enlightenment. You read them all. You subscribe to the photo magazines and devour them, like candy, cover-to-cover. You scour their back sections, desirous of having that casual ability to toss out brands and names and models and features and capabilities. Your camera brand becomes your cause - Nikon or die. You speak of Dewitt and Lepp and Dykinga and Story and Lanting and Muench, your colleagues, and you whisper the other names - Adams and Weston and Lange and Maisel - in hushed, reverent tones.    

 You discover This Week in Photography and make the Podcast part of every week. You look forward to those 90 minutes with Frederick and Martin and Steve and Ron and Darrell and Sara because they’re funny and they’re your friends, your family.

And, you shoot. By now you have outgrown the lemming-like approach of the local camera club, where everyone shoots the same thing the way little kids playing soccer chase the ball in a big knot, with no thought to strategy. You discover the magic of the one-person photo walk. You crave that time and are refreshed and energized by it. You realize that when you are separated from your camera you start to feel twitchy and irritable. But as soon as you reunite and put that viewfinder to your eye, the stress and anxiety of everyday life melt away as the world is reduced to that small, beautiful area. You’re in the arms of your lover again.

As your quest for enlightenment intensifies, you enroll in a high-end photo workshop taught by one or more of the photographers who have become your heroes and travel to Jackson or Death Valley or Alaska or Antarctica or the Pelouse or Tuscany. Before you go you make the requisite pilgrimage to B&H to stock up on hope and promise.

You arrive at the workshop and kneel at the knee of the masters, shooting what they shoot, when they shoot. You emulate. You learn. You don’t eat or sleep, but these are minor annoyances. You use everything in your camera bag, and realize you need more. You make good friends who become shooting buddies and trusted critics of your work. You realize, I can do this. I NEED to do this.

You go home and upgrade all of your software. You research and acquire a piano-size printer. You become comfortable with terms like CMYK and Chroma Inks and color profiles. You buy a RAID for image backup. You discover NIK and become a plug-in junkie. You go to the camera store and engage in a conversation with the experts, and halfway through the conversation you realize that you know more than they do. And one day, a sense of photographic purpose and personal artistic confidence emerges. You still admire the work of your heroes but you see something unique in your own images as well. Your photographic voice has matured and strengthened and is now rich with color and tone and vision.

You sing what you see, with purpose and emotion. And you realize that the person who began making snapshots and became a photographer is now a storyteller, a visual teller of tales.

So, you tell stories. You move to the next level, one in which the goal isn’t to make a good picture - you do that easily - but to tell a story. Your measure of success becomes deceleration, that moment when people stop talking when your image comes up and they don’t want to know more about it - they need to know more about it. And one day you wake up and realize that people are reacting to your images the same way you reacted to the images of your heroes when you started out all those many years ago. You smile, and realize: The student has become the teacher.

I love this craft.

Excerpted from The Deliberate Photographer. ©Copyright 2013; all rights reserved.

To learn more about The Deliberate Photographer eBook as well as other titles by Steven Shepard, please visit the Shepard Communications Group Web site.


Don't Piss off the Pachyderms

There's something about a pissed-off bull elephant shaking his head and flapping his ears with his trunk wrapped around a tusk, charging your car, that puts a fine cap on the day.

We were leaving a wildlife area where we had been photographing all day. The track we were driving on was narrow and poorly paved, so when we came around a blind curve with dense brush on both sides and realized that a truck was approaching our front bumper at full speed, in reverse. Our driver leaned on the horn without effect. At the last possible minute the driver in front of us cranked the wheel and went off the road and through the bush to get around us without slowing down, followed by the elephant who seemed intent on practicing metal sculpting on the guy's vehicle. The trouble was that he spotted us, now that the guy in front of us was now behind us and accelerating away at a rapid rate. So we followed suit, dropping the car into reverse and backing away from the elephant, trying to stay slightly ahead of his accelerating speed. Of course, the narrow road made it impossible to turn around (and frankly, even if we could, I doubt that we'd have time before being overtaken by the pissed pachyderm), so we backed up for a couple of kilometers before he finally lost interest.

The question, of course, is why he was angry, and we finally figured it out. Following the elephant at a distance that was far too close was a van from one of the local lodges, filled with Asian tourists, all of them hanging out of the windows of the van and snapping pictures of the elephant chasing the cars, laughing gaily at the spectacle. If only the elephant had turned around I would have had something really special to shoot. Sigh...


Encounter with Luján

They arrived in the back of a truck from a small pueblo in the mountains north of Antigua. The truck was normally used to transport produce; today it transported people so that they could attend mass in the yellow and white church that dominates the central plaza. The colors of their clothing were bright and colorful and mismatched, plaids with patterns, and their strong Indian faces bore the marks and lines of lives well and deliberately lived.

One man, apparently traveling alone, spotted me with my camera and ambled over. He stood by while I fiddled with the controls, adjusting camera and tripod. Then he spoke; his name was Luján.

Luján: You are visiting from far away?

Steve: Yes, from the United States.

Luján: A long way to come to attend church.

Steve: Oh, I’m not attending the service. I’m photographing the church. I’m not Catholic, you see.

Luján: Pity. But I wish to sell you something.

At this point I ceased fiddling with my camera and gave him my full attention. He was dressed in clean but threadbare pants that at one time were corduroy, and a shapeless plaid shirt, patterned tie and worn jacket. His shoes didn’t fit well – I could tell by the way he walked – but he wore a world-class smile. This was a man who, like so many of the men I’ve had the honor to meet in Europe and Latin America, didn’t equate lack of wealth with social status; he was who he was. So I asked, “What is it you wish to sell me?”

Luján: Ah. What I have, you see, is quite valuable, and while I’m reluctant to sell it, my wife and I are hungry and would also like to leave something in the offering plate for the poor. There are so many who have so little. Would you consider buying what I have to offer?

I thought about it, and while I am usually leery of such encounters, there was something about this guy. Again, he didn’t see himself as poor; there were many far worse off than him. So I agreed to look at what he had.

Slowly, he withdrew his hand from his pocket and opened it. It held a small rock, about the size of a robin’s egg. It was neither colorful, nor shiny, nor crystalline; it was the kind of dull, lackluster stone you find along recently-built roadbeds. Puzzled, I asked Luján what was so special about the rock. “Please buy my rock from me,” he asked quietly, looking fiercely into my eyes. “If you buy my rock, my wife and I will eat, and I will not have to beg you for money. We will feel good because we will no longer be hungry, and you will feel good because you will have done a kind and human thing. And you will have my rock.”

It is with me always. My humble rock.



The Power of Social Media

In late April, my good friend Gary Martin and I took off for a photography workshop with Scott Stulberg in Death Valley. But rather than fly into Los Angeles, we chose instead to drive from Gary’s home in western Wisconsin instead. It took four-and-a-half days, but photographically-speaking it was a rich and rewarding trip, with surprises around every corner. We drove through Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and a tiny corner of Arizona before we made our way to Death Valley. We lingered for two days in South Dakota, marveling at all it had to offer. What a beautiful place.

As we left Custer State Park one morning, we found ourselves winding along the northern end of Highway 87, otherwise known as the Needles Highway. This part of the road winds through tall granite hoodoos or pinnacles that tower hundreds of feet above the forest. They are massive and craggy and beautiful, so we stopped at a pull-off to photograph them. As I mounted my camera on the tripod, Gary, who was squinting at the pinnacles, asked, “Are those people up there?, pointing to the left-most tower. Mounting a long lens on the camera I looked, and sure enough, there were two climbers, about to summit the tall, skinny rock. We photographed them for about an hour as they made their way to the top, ultimately standing side-by-side on the summit. “Sure would be nice if we could find them so that we could give them some of these pictures,” Gary mused.

I took that observation as a challenge – and an opportunity to perform something of an online science experiment. That evening, when we had settled back into our hotel in Lead, I booted my computer and brought up Facebook. I posted this message on my wall: 

One week later, I got this response:

Hi Steve,
Thanks for hunting us down to share your photos. Nice job on those. It would be cool to see some more of the shots. And I'd be happy to give a short interview. Evenings work best for me. Looking forward to chatting with you.

A friend of a friend knew someone who was a climber in North Dakota, but he knew of a climbing club in South Dakota. He sent a message on is own Facebook page asking the climbing community about my question, and a couple of days later, magic.

So anyone who tries to tell me that social media is a waste of time will get an argument. Just sayin’.




A Sailing Lesson

When our friends Joe and Claudia Candido suggested we join them and another couple for an eight-day sailing adventure in the Caribbean, neither of us gave it a second thought – other than to get progressively excited as we got closer to the date. So there we were in St. Thomas, aboard a beautiful 50-foot sailboat, ready to head off into the British Virgin Islands for a week of island-hopping. We sailed, ate, dove, snorkeled, ate, hiked, and ate – oh, and drank something they serve down there called a painkiller. Sabine tells me it contains pineapple juice, orange juice, coconut milk, and ice – oh, and rum. Lots and lots of rum. And the final touch, which is elegance at its best, is the fresh nutmeg they grind on top. These things bring on hallucinations and visions of the finest kind. So we stayed really busy. What we did NOT do, however, was access the Internet, check e-mail, or listen to voicemail.

As someone who is – I’ll admit it – addicted to all of the electronic tethers that keep me connected to what I have come to call the real world, the idea of forced disconnection created a level of anxiety that began to preoccupy me for several days before the trip. How would I stay in touch with customers? How would I stay on top of world events? How would I respond to calls in a timely way? I fretted endlessly, coming up with all kinds of scenarios for getting my messages. At one point I found myself mapping all of the Internet cafes on all the islands where we planned to stop.

To make matters worse, I decided to leave my laptop home, opting instead to bring my iPad. Even though I had to travel directly to a client engagement after our vacation, I had my presentations on a flash drive and could easily use a client laptop to run them. Still, I was just this side of frantic as we left the harbor, still blissfully awash in WiFi.

By day three I was sore from pulling lines (they’re not ropes in spite of the fact that they’re ropes), working winches and repeatedly banging my head on the coaming that led down into the salon and galley. And by the end of that day I realized that I had not yet checked messages – or had a desire to. So I grabbed my gadget bag, snuck onto the deck with my Blackberry as we passed an island with a tower, and turned it on. It buzzed and hummed, downloading three days of messages. Reluctantly, I went through them – all 97 of them – and discovered that among the ads, spam, promises of Nigerian riches, notifications about notifications from Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn updates, and jokes from all the people who keep me well supplied with humor, there were – count ‘em – four that needed a reasonably quick response. I snapped them off, turned off the phone, and stowed it for another three days. Sure enough, when I turned it back on I had 118 messages and two voicemails. Both of the voicemails were from well-wishers, telling me to enjoy the vacation. Two of the 118 e-mails required a quick response.

This was our first real vacation since 2008. As the sole proprietor of a small (as in one person) business, it’s difficult to disappear for long periods of time because there’s no one else to mind the store. Luckily I can stay more-or-less connected when I’m traveling, but even so, being out of the office is difficult. Or is it? Clearly I had overplayed the threat of being disconnected in my own  mind, and had allowed the anxiety to take over and fester a bit. So what’s the lesson? One, vacations are extremely important and should NOT be skipped; and two, the world does not come to an end when you take one.

There is a third lesson at   work here that you may have keyed in on, and it’s a technological one. Remember, I climbed up on deck with my Blackberry and made a phone call. From the deck. Of a boat. Sitting in the middle of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, under sail. I had a strong signal and never had a problem. Every island, every rock, every piece of coral, it seemed, had a working cell tower. So I may not have had WiFi, but I did have a good 3G cellular connection – if I wanted it.

I didn’t.