MEDIOCRITY IN ACTION AT THE JAPANESE GARDEN
This week I would like to explore the conumdrum we all face as photographers when we are face to face with a subject that has been shot to death. There are different versions of this dilemma. You might have been there too many times - maybe it's just time to move on. It is one thing to be working on a project, which can be among the highest callings of a photographer, but if you are just taking the same image again and again, that is not a project. Of course it is one thing if the subject is right out your back door, but even if it means just taking a bus, it doesn't seem to be the best use of your time. As a professional, I am always willing to concede that I might someday encounter a unique lighting situation, or somehow realize that I've been doing it all wrong, but once I have "my shot", even if it is not the world's best shot, my motivation goes way down in my pursuit of that subject.
The most common problem is not overshooting on your own part. I always say that you should "work the subject" and who am I t tell you when it is time to stop? The trouble becomes much more philosophical when we show up at a world famous photo location, take a hard look around, and realize that there is probably not much more to say about the subject than the admittedly beautiful images that were a large part of the reason we went there in the first place. Sometimes the "money shot" does really say it all, or at least as much as anyone who doesn't live nearby will ever get for their efforts.
Our strange new world of cheap air travel, Iphones, and Instagram has only made this worse. In the heydey of photojournalism, most people, even the smaller subset who appreciated photography as an art, had no real chance of duplicating or even seeing an image from the other side of the world. They had never been to Paris, didn't own a camera that could easily produce a sharp image, and probably had only viewed less than a dozen images of the Eiffel Tower. Everything was so gosh darn new, and the fact of the image's existence far overshadowed its artistic aspirations.
There are now more photographs of the Eiffel Tower than you could ever view on Instagram even if you devoted your life to the pursuit. The chances you (or any one) could ever say something "new" are darn near close to zero. When artistic depression hits, it hardly seems worth the effort at all. But as Fran always tells me, you are not going to Paris to take photographs, even if someone is paying you to take photographs - that's there problem. You are there for the food, the sights, the history, the experience - your art is just something to pursue in a new highly stimulating environment. The images are for you, as part of a process that you enjoy, with no real expectation that anyone else might find them new, much less unique.
So of course you should take the "money shot", but don't make it an obsession and certainly don't stop there if you want to try to say something "new", even if you don't really have much chance of success. This first image above is a Portland "money shot", so famous after an appearance in National Geographic that it is known around the world by photographers as "The Tree." This particular example, taken by me in an offhand manner this past year, is really not very good. As usual I was a few weeks past prime foliage exuberance, so there was no real chance to compete with better-timed shots. The path next to the tree at the Japanese Garden is divided by a rope line so that the usual line of photographers and their tripods will not interfere with civilians. Even though I was "late" there was still quite a line. At this point in my life I am just not willing to lie on the cold concrete to capture the same image as everyone else on line.
Now don't get me wrong. If you travel across the country to visit Portland, God bless you. Please go visit the Garden, and take a look at the tree. Then come to Saturday Market and buy a photograph of the tree from one of colleagues, whose efforts no doubt are at least marginally better than anything you could achieve in one visit. And when you come to my booth, please purchase an image of "My Tree", another Japanese Maple that I love at our Chinese Garden a few blocks from the Market.
So what is a photographer to do? My short answer is to try anything, even things that almost certainly make no sense, in the effort to make a ubiquitious subject your own. Here are some explorations of my admittedly "meh" shot that I pursued yesterday through the magic of post-processing. I had fun, produced something new even if was just "putting lipstick on a pig." There are worse ways to spend an hour or so.
Since the tree was weeks past its prime, all I could do with the color version was to increase the saturation of the little remaining color with the individual orange and red color sliders. My composition was below par since I didn't lie on the floor, but I still got a feel for the romantically convoluted branches of the Maple. The "better" composition that included some space to the left of the tree is lost somewhere in Lightroom, which says more about my organizational "abilities" than it does about my artistry.
THE ABSTRACTION OF BLACK AND WHITE
The first thing to try is to convert to black and white. This is almost as perverse as a black and white sunset, but I'm past prime color, so what can I do? Unless you just love monochromatic green, then I have lost nothing except a touch of uninspiring orange in making this move. I now can work on improving the composition after the fact, and exploring manipulating the exposure. Maybe there is enough here to make an interesting image.
DOES THIS PANORAMA MAKE ME LOOK THIN?
Cropping is always your friend. I converted to a 2:1 panorama to see if the tension and concentration I could achieve could make up for the context that I left out. I happen to like this version better, but you could certainly disagree. The right-hand "snake" limb is emphasized by the crop whose horizontal shape seems to mirror its movement through the frame. I've lost some curves on the left, but I don't think those are as important. What is funny is that the image has gotten a little darker, not through a change in exposure, but just because I've excluded some of the lighter portions of the sky that were cropped out at the top. If I pursued this further, I could explore increasing the exposure to lighten things back up.
IS A SQUARE MORE INTENSE OR JUST BORING?
Here I went in the opposite direction, cropping to a square and seeing if the right-hand limb could carry the entire image. I do like the single dark line travelling across the frame, but I am not sure that it is enough. I really darkened the blacks and the shadows to get the graphic qualities I often find interesting, and it would be interesting to see how that worked with the other crops. It also might be fun to see if I could so manipulate the exposure to try to remove the leaves, since I think this could resemble and aerial image of a dark river valley. But I don't think it is as nice a tree as the panoramic version.
Finally I returned to the original crop to see what exposure manipulation could do for the image. This is about as "high key" as I think the image can take before it became a dull bland mess of a black and white. This forest, which is of course only single tree, is certainly much brighter, and you can finally appreciate some of details in the trunk. The decline in contrast is so great that in fact the lighter portions of the background now appear darker since there is very little difference in t0ne with the light trunk. Another point of interest is that this look was not achieved by raising the exposure at all. I used a "preset" that supposedly simulated what the image would have looked like if it had been taken with infrared film. As a simulation, it is a total failure, but the preset "raised the exposure" by brightening the yellows, greens, and oranges to 100%, so there you go. I put back some detail, since infrared usually reduces the sharpness of an image, and the result is this "high key" scene. Which only goes to show that there is no one way to get similar results with widely different software manipulations.
In the end I like the panoramic version the best, but that is just my opinion. Despite the perversity of a black and white conversion of such a colorful subject, I feel that I did achieve something at least a little bit different. I'm perverse enough myself that I think that only another photographer might know that this was in fact yet another rendition of "The Tree".