Two Pictures: Matt Miller

(This is another post that comes from my invitation to all of you to send me two of your pictures to get my thoughts on them. Send two photos at 544 pixels/72 dpi to me at tekamah at me dot com And explain something about the photos and something about your quandary with the two.)

This one is near and dear to me. Matt Miller sent two photos of Nebraska cowboys. Matt is a photographer at the Omaha World-Herald, the paper my brother delivered from our hometown 50 miles north of Omaha so long ago.

Being from Nebraska, you should know the work of Ken Jarecke. Well, regardless of being from Nebraska, you should know it. Here’s a link to a piece he wrote on cowboys and photojournalists for the New York Times Lens Blog last year.

So let this, in part, be an ode to Nebraska. Being in photography and having a connection to Nebraska is like being an ocean-going ship. You occasionally see other ships like you out on the open sea, so you sound the fog horn. Other notable folks with varying degrees of Nebraskensi include Joel Sartore, Jim Alinder, Bill Ganzel, MaryAnne Golon, David Rees, Bill Frakes, Al Schaben ... and here my memory runs dry.

Now back to Matt’s photos. Here they are:

Both © Matt Miller, Omaha World-Herald

Matt writes: “I really wanted to hear your opinion on what (if anything) works with these two shots, and which is stronger. The long lens photograph is older. Part of why I like it is because it's different than most of the branding images I have seen. But I realize different doesn't necesarily mean better. I do remember on that shoot (back in 2003, I think), that I had a hard time trying to NOT make a photo like Sam Abell's red bucket shot. I finally settled in and just tried to make photos.”

The key issue in making pictures such as these is one that crosses many settings. It’s a situation in which many photographs have been recognized as being great images – not least of which is Sam’s photo. There are two aspects that you have to overcome: the body or work before you and the cliché.

James Estrin at the Times Lens Blog and I were talking about this the other day. I suggested writing a piece that listed all clichés and numbered them so that you could just call out a number and save time in the conversation: 43 (sick person with no hair); 44 (sick person with hair); 9 (wrinkled face of elderly person made with a short telephoto, black background); 269 (silhouetted wild animal, with or without the sun behind it). Cowboys doing anything would certainly make the top 100.

James remembered the joke about the retired comedians sitting around their retirement home calling out numbers that referred to jokes and laughing each time a number is uttered, until someone called out a number with the wrong accent.

So how do you overcome the cliché and make pictures that don’t just repeat what’s been done before. First, you have to know what’s been done before. How do you do that? Never stop looking at things you haven’t seen. If you haven’t seen much, it’s easy: Go to the library of a university that has a decent art school and go to the photography section. Start at the top left of the collection and work your way to the bottom right. Repeat that in every setting you can for the rest of your life. (I did this as an undergrad at Nebraska, in grad school at Missouri, at ICP, at Geographic, in the National Archives, at Powell’s book store, at Vince Musi’s house ...)

You have to build a library of images in your head. The more you see, and understand, the more aware your own pictures can be. I’ve tried to guess at how many pictures I’ve looked at and it’s easily several million – more than 1 million just of the workings of the White House. And I feel like I’m just getting started.

Also, ask people who know stuff which photographers they admire. Then ask them why they admire those photographers. Do this 100 times and you’ll start to get somewhere.

Go to contests and listen to what judges say; ask to see photographer’s raw takes; look at every issue of Life magazine; look at early German photography; know how many photographs of people wearing red sweaters the National Geographic magazine published in the 1960’s.

Some of what you’ll see and hear will be valuable, some won’t. Learn to discern the difference.

And how do you go beyond the cliché in an oft-visited setting?

First, understand what makes any image a cliché. It’s the quality of rubber stamp, of been there done that, of it doesn’t really say anything but looks pretty just like the last photos of the same thing.

It goes to follow that if you set out to convey a specific, dimensional quality and to tell a unique story about a given scene, you won’t make a photograph that is a cliché. You’ll make one that is unique to that setting, every time.

So apply these two gauges to Matt’s pictures of the cowboys – finally I’m getting to them.

There have been many similar photos of both pictures and you don’t really learn anything specific about these groups of cowboys who came together on these days. So both photos repeat existing work and are clichés because they bring nothing new in terms of how they were made or the stories they tell. They are great versions of what already exist.

And that’s fine. They are accomplished images. The light, the composition, the moment, color, three dimensions, all work. To chose between the two photos is more a personal preference than a matter of one working better than the other.

Another way to enter these scenarios is to go in with the goal of making a picture that someone seeing it 100 years from now will appreciate, and will be able to distinguish this one from all the others like it, before or after this one was made.

I’m sure Matt knew things about these settings that would help the 100-year viewer who is eager to learn of our time on the planet. Just looking at the scene, there are aspects that could help our centenarian: the combination of cowboy and baseball hats, the style of glasses people are wearing, the mix of ages of the cowboys, the types of jeans and chaps, what kinds of cattle they’re branding, how open the range is, what types of pickups they drove and what trailers did they pull, who was the head honcho and what was he like, who was the youngest and what was the day like for him, or her, what was for lunch and how was it served, and so on.

Layer these kinds of details into a photograph that sets out to tell a dimensional story of the day and these two photos would be different. None of these details are integral in these two photographs. They are mostly about the surface of the day.

History loves the details of photos, the parts that we tend not even to consider, the ones that travel through time with continued relevance because though the details change in appearance they always remain universal. I came to appreciate this all the more at the White House, where the responsibility to history was heavy but the scenes changed little one year to the next.

The goal is to stay fresh, to see each thing anew, every time.

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