How do you make pictures you can't see?

This is another in a series of posts that expand on things I’ve said, in passing, in other posts.

We spend so much of our time trying to make pictures that we know will work. We have to make images that a client or an editor or subject wants day in and day out.

While working at the White House, I would regularly get requests for specific types of pictures that clearly existed in some editor’s mind, but didn’t necessarily exist in the archive. One time, a New York-based picture editor asked for an image of President Bush leaning over the table behind his desk, just like the one of President Kennedy that George Tames made in 1961. The picture editor wanted to convey how heavily the war was weighing on President Bush in the same way that the Tames photo conveyed how President Kennedy was burdened by office.

As is often the case with preconceiving photos, the Tames photo had nothing to do with the President feeling the weight of office, a good friend of the photographer told me. Instead, President Kennedy was standing up to read newspapers, as he often did, because his back hurt.

So wouldn’t it be grand to be free from the burden of filling someone else’s expectations in making a picture, to set out to make a picture that you’re not sure will work, that you can’t exactly see before you release the shutter.

Making such a picture would be like making a picture of a ghost, like capturing a feeling, like containing something intangible within the frame, like holding smoke.

In this time of chimping, the likelihood of making such an image is going against the odds. Instant confirmation that you made the image you set out to make is a button-push away. But then so is confirmation that you made one you hadn’t intended.

Why is there value in striving to make a picture you can’t see? And what does that mean, anyway?

In the same way that a client or editor seeking the execution of a specific image that is in his or her mind limits the potential of the resulting image, setting out to make a picture you know will work can only go so far. Photographs that are simply executions of what’s in our minds means that the image will be no more than what we are capable of. The image we set out to make will tend to be nothing more than a caption expressed as an image, it will be self contained. Many of this month’s images in the cover story in National Geographic magazine appear to have been chosen along these lines, a visual representation of information expressed in a caption.

Striving to make a picture you can’t see, on the other hand, inherently requires that you step outside of your comfort zone. It pushes you to do something you haven’t done, you have to stretch beyond your self.

How do you know when you have succeeded in making such an image? The response when you see it on screen is usually one of surprise and joy. “Yes!” That as opposed to one of relief or assurance when you see that a picture you set out to make succeeded.

How do you set out to make such a picture? And I should say that I believe you should do this in every situation:

Before you raise your camera, know why you are making the picture. And the reason for making a given picture should include the desire to convey a quality that words cannot fully describe. You should want to make people who look at this picture feel something. Make their heart warm or their skin crawl or their brow wrinkle or make them laugh or smile or cry or feel pride or disgust or connection or repulsion. In other words, make them react to what you've done.

Before you can know what that quality is, you have to understand the subject, you have to form an opinion or an impression, you have to engage and react to the whole of what’s happening in front of you. Commit to conveying what it is you are feeling and as long as your feelings are honest and as determined as you can make them, you will make a picture that you can’t exactly predict will work.

And if that image is successful in conveying an essence of what you’re photographing and if that essence is dimensional and your approach to creating the image is simply complex or has complex simplicity, then you will make an image that you can’t have predicted and it will be one that goes beyond your self.

The image will be an expression of yin and yang. On the one side is you striving to perceive an essence that comes from the subject on the other side. These two sides meet as a whole to produce something, an image, that is greater than either alone.

There is inevitable strife in this process. At least there can be. Aligning your perceptions with the photographic process and your limitations in both areas can create stress. That type of stress is the creative process. 

But this way of making pictures can also be very freeing. Once you reach the point of clarity of recognizing the quality that should come from a setting, the weight lifts and you can simply explore possibilities with the camera. You can respond to light and color, you can anticipate moments and compose images and put yourself in the right proximity to the subject in a way that is a unique expression.

And if each effort is a unique expression what a gift that is to your self and your subjects and to people who see your photographs. That much is predictable.

Thank you, one and all

Some of my pictures from Cyclocross National Championships