A Good Year Photos ?

I recall somewhere in the distant past a story of Ansel Adams being asked how many good photos he took in a year and he responded with “twelve significant photos in a year is a good crop”.  To most photographers that probably doesn’t sound like a lot, I mean, what is with this guy Adams, was he slack, couldn’t get out bed, spent too much time drinking wine, couldn't figure out how to make his camera work?

Of course not, Ansel Adams like a great many of the world famous photographers simply had really high standards. 

In the days of the internet age where it seems almost everything is posted unfiltered to flikr or other photo sharing sites he probably would have struggled to make headway against the constant flood of images.   Today you need to be putting stuff out constantly, or you need something completely novel to make an impact, no time for reflection and nazal gazing and definitely no time for the pursuit of pure excellence of execution within a specific photographic discipline. 

Obviously Adams took way more than 12 shots in a year, but probably only a small number of negatives actually went on to the printing stage.  But I doubt he shot anything near the number of images the modern photographer does, simply because the equipment was difficult to use, cumbersome and expensive when it came to consumables.  I know for my own part, when I shot medium format film you tried to make every frame count, A wedding shoot consisted of 200-300 frames, not the 2,000 to 3,000 of today.

To a great degree the almost zero cost and ease of shooting digital has meant that many photographers have little invested in each image, there will always be another one and another time.  We are spoilt by the technology and when it comes to creating images we are now very much attuned to instant gratification principles.

I don't for one moment think this is such a terrible thing, the east to use technology has brought a wealth of opportunity for those who want to easily express themselves visually, the democratisation of photography through digital has given us new visions and ways of working that past masters would have envied, but there are downsides.

Nowadays, when a photographer mentions that they spend perhaps hours editing a single image they are often met with derision, with common arguments like, "lifes too short for that", or "who cares how much time and effort it takes"

Truthfully such arguments are probably code for, "I don't have the ability or patience" or "I have no idea what you are doing".  

Regardless however, these arguments miss the point, artisans don’t spend inordinate time fine tuning the little subtleties of an image that most people miss because they want to please the great unwashed.  Artisans go the extra distance so they are fully, truly satisfied with the final result in their own heart and soul, they work to a higher standard and expect more of themselves and their images.   That the average snapshooter, peripheral photo dabbler or photo forum lurker fails to realize this is totally irrelevant to them.

The net of course works somewhat contrary to the higher pursuits in photographic quality because the demands of a small web image are quite different to a large scale fine art print, a fact lost on most casual observers of on-line photography.  Yes I know that most photography these days is consumed as 1000 pixels wide on a low grade monitor, so what, most photography in the past was consumed as poor quality slides or grainy fuzzy postcard prints, that doesn't mean we should judge photography quality by such a low standard.  Regardless of technological changes, a high quality good sized print is still the gold standard, a great print is what will sort the artisans from the tinkerers, or the truly serious from the mildly dedicated.

But the editing and printing are not the only factors that artisans use to judge their work, it goes back, way back to the shooting and pre-shooting phases.

Artisans may well return the same place or the studio many times reshooting the subject until they get the definitive capture, they may well edit the resulting files many many times and in radically different ways before settling on one final rendition.

The may, plan the shoot for days or months or even perhaps years.  A lot of people poo poo Adams' ideas of pre-visualisation these days, but perhaps that is just because they have no vision themselves.  All of the really good photographers I have known definitely worked to a personal vision, all took the art seriously and were prepared to put themselves out to get the results. 

They all had something else too....persistence!

But with such dedication comes an elevation of what is deemed acceptable by the artist.

For Ansel and a great many photographers a good year or “good crop” may well be a dozen or less images.

A few years back I took to heart the concept of being more particular, of concentrating effort into a smaller body of work each year.  Less is more became not a simple platitude but rather a rule to work by for personal work at any rate.

Each year I look through the images of the past 12 months a try to pick out the 10 that I am most happy with, and you will note the term....”that I am most happy with” not those that other people have liked or bought, but the ones that mean the most to me artistically.

From the thousands of images I capture each year it takes time and thought to cull down to just 10, it involves introspection and immersion, it also requires some separation from the time that I actually captured or edited the works.

Are they always the works that took the greatest effort in shooting and investment of editing time?  No, but more often than not they are, after all why would I bother burning the midnight oil editing an image I was not happy with in the first place. I must mention however that any works that will make the cut has been edited for high grade printing, it has to stand up when placed upon a wall or in a high quality book, web images are a non-event for me and represent the lowest common denominator, unfortunately we are still a world away from the time when a web image can convey and display all the subtlety and quality of an image edited specifically for fine art printing processes.  Monitors and compression methods still have a long way to go before they are transparent in the imaging chain, though I am confident we will get there eventually. But mark my words when we do get there, absolute quality will only be delivered by using the same efforts and dedication that are used today for fine prints.

The one thing that strikes me is that so many of the images I take that don’t make the personal cut are never a waste, they are actually practice or dress rehearsals for the real thing.  These days I can accept this, I don’t see it as a failure but rather an opportunity for growth.

I guess this is the message I want to leave you with, be prepared to slow down and perhaps take less images with greater intent, concentrate more, edit less photos but at a deeper level, become more self critical and chances are you will see a greater improvement in your photography.  

And if you do stuff up, well accept it as a success, cause it is one more thing you will know not to do in future, and in any case who knows what you might learn from those mistakes.

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