Thursday, February 5, 2009

There's No School Like The Old School

Here is the corollary to my "gimmicks" post: these are some of the photographic skills and qualities that are impossible to "short-cut."

1. Personality/Empathy/Scope of Knowledge
You've probably noticed I talk about Avedon a lot. What made Avedon great was not some technical brilliance that exceeded that of mere mortals: Avedon was a brilliant talker. Avedon was brilliant at finding common ground with a subject. He knew just what to say to get the reaction he needed. Avedon had a scope of knowledge that enabled him to speak knowledgably about classical music with Mitsuko Uchida, and about theater with Andre Gregory. The ability to empathize with a subject, and to know how to create a circumstance where they will show a desired quality is almost impossible to teach. Its a skill that is partly inborn, and partly honed through extensive practice.

2. Posing
Posing isn't "cool" these days, largely because most photographers haven't studied it and aren't good at it. Many clients express distaste for "posed" photos, often because they have usually been exposed to awkward and inexperienced direction. Good posing is the accumulated knowledge of centuries of visual artists concerned with making the subject look a certain way. A good pose doesn't look "posed." The only way to master posing is countless hours of practice with subjects of all shapes and sizes.

3. Elegant lighting
Lets face it: it's not rocket science to go out and buy a really powerful strobe and create some "gee whiz" lighting. Power can be purchased: elegance can only be learned. Examine the portraits of geniuses like David Seidner to see what is possible when grace takes priority over power.

4. Timing
Some folks are born with great timing, and some folks learn timing through practice. However, there's no blog or book you can read, and no workshop you can attend that will imbue you with great timing. Machine-gun photography is a poor substitute, and in the context of photojournalism or portraiture it seldom works. Nailing the "decisive moment" is a carefully honed talent.

5. Artistic Judgement
Anyone can learn to apply a texture to an image in Photoshop. $1600 will buy you the ability to shoot at f/1.2. Only a refined sense of judgement will tell you when either of these options are appropriate. Composition I'd consider a subset of this skill: what goes in and what stays out of an image is a matter of judgement that is partly innate, and partly developed over time.

These are the qualities upon which I have focused my photographic studies of late, because in an era when so many qualities can either be bought in a fancy piece of kit, or short-cutted with a trick learned on a blog site, the only way to reliably differentiate one's work is by focusing on those skills and qualities that are impossible to reproduce without the confluence of talent and sweat.

I'll end this post with a shot from today's session with the always-stunning Carrie.

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