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Still Spying on Memories

October's Print of the Month (or thereabouts) is the latest of my reprints of very old negatives from the Pike Place Market. I'm working on coming up with 20 or so prints in a series I'm calling "Face of the Market" -- emphasizing the people rather than the place.


"... you are the easiest person to fool."

Richard Feynman's quotation on the home page of my website is only one that I have used there that is not by a photographer. My friend Steve emailed me this quotation for my collection (thanks, Steve) and it triggered a memory.

A photographer acquaintance had the extreme good fortune to take a weekend workshop with the great Ruth Bernhard. It turned out to be the last one she did before her death in 2006. In addition to being a gifted photographer herself her reputation held her to be an equally gifted teacher and mentor. Part of the workshop was, of course, a review of portfolios brought by the attendees. Ms. Bernhard looked very thoughtfully and carefully at my acquaintance's portfolio of landscapes. Even though her own photographs were rarely if ever landscapes she made insightful comments on several of the prints as she looked through them again and again. But she kept coming back to one print without commenting on it. She questioned my acquaintance about his intentions for it and his printing of it. She finally said to him "You really want this print to work, don't you?" (yes) "And you know in your heart that it does not, don't you?" (long pause -- yes). "... you are the easiest person to fool."

How to we as photographers keep from fooling ourselves -- or at least keep ourselves from doing so frequently? It seems to me that we face two issues: "How do I want this photograph to look?" and "What do I do to make it look like that?" The second of these is technique -- in the camera settings, in the darkroom or Photoshop. If I go to a workshop with a master printer I'll be better at it immediately after doing so. The first question has a very simple but much longer-term answer. Look at art. Look at lots of art. Look at all kinds of art. When you see a painting, a drawing, a photograph, a print, a collage, a weaving, a statue ... that excites you try to discover why it does so. Do this a lot and perhaps you can generalize from the specific to the benefit of your own work. (It worked for me.)

But that's not all. If you look at art with the goal of finding out "what works" -- apply that to your own work as well. Yes, the opinion of someone you respect is helpful and if you listen with an open heart and mind it will help you to look at your next piece more realistically. Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once did a lecture in which he showed every one of the prints he had made in the previous year -- 50 odd of them. Of those only 6 did he consider successful enough to go into his portfolio.

I now have about 60 candidate negatives for my "Face of the Market" portfolio. I've printed about 40 of them. I'm quite a ways from 20 "keepers". Only two days ago I printed one that I really want to work but know in my heart that it doesn't.


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