From Peak to Shining Peak...
In the dim, though not so distant, past I used to make images using a 35mm film camera and I would feel content if around one image in six was good. Let’s not get the wrong idea here; I’m not referring to photographs that were wildly exciting or career changing or, heaven forbid, life changing. I’m not even referring to what Ansel Adams called epiphanies. Sadly, the vast majority of these images didn’t provide me with sudden revelations or insights. These “good” images simply met my general level of expectation; they were well exposed, reasonably sharp and passably well composed. The real beauties only came along rarely and I think Ansel’s estimate of a dozen such images a year is still pretty accurate.
It’s tempting to think (especially in this digital age) that the only reason Ansel had so few “stonkers” was because producing each image was such a faff. Obviously making a photograph with a large format camera isn’t like using a modern DSLR; there’s no built in meter or autofocus for a start. And when using a 10x8 the process normally proceeds at a stately pace and in an almost ritualistic fashion. But I don’t think that there’s a strong correlation between high production rate and the creation of a large number of great images - though there is a good argument for regular practice benefiting the quality of our work. If it were a simple matter of numbers we would surely have seen a huge upsurge in amazing photography in the last ten years. Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be the case, with websites drowning us in a deluge of mediocre imagery.
In my early twenties I started making images regularly on a 5x4. This move coincided with my hit rate increasing significantly from the one in six I mentioned earlier to around six out of ten. For the mathematically challenged (and I had to get a calculator to work this out!) that’s an increase of over 43% from 16.66% to 60%. Of course, 68.7% of all statistics are made up… And this figure is hardly the result of rigorous analysis. But surely, I reasoned, such a big change must be significant. Might it even be a sign that - at the advanced age of 23 - I’d finally become a photographer? This conclusion is clearly of dubious worth - not least because I was acting as arbiter of my own success in a field that is notorious for not having any fixed criteria to use as benchmarks.
Over the intervening decades I noticed what I took to be a worrying trend. My hit rate of good images has steadily and significantly fallen, to perhaps as low as 20%. For someone who only made a total of around 300 5x4 images in a good year, this drop was particularly distressing. Sixty good images seemed such a paltry number compared to one hundred and eighty.
And now I’ve entered the digital age - not an easy transition for someone more in tune with a slower pace of life – and I still find myself making fewer images than most of my peers. The potential to make thousands of images in a day has, for me, been a disincentive to do so. That’s not just a sign of me being a contrarian. Partly it’s that I don’t actually see that many possibilities. Partly it’s that I believe it’s best to take my time. Indeed I have deliberately eschewed such speed advantages as auto focus. Instead, I use manual focus lenses on a tilt/shift adaptor.
Obviously, there are times (such as shooting sports or wildlife) when continuous shooting increases your chance of success. But the landscape rarely changes fast enough to warrant making more than a handful of exposures an hour. What does change is our relationship to it. As we become more in tune with a place or an idea we see new possibilities. This evolution necessarily means that we rarely get the shot at our first attempt. But I digress… The encouraging news is that I feel my best images are still an improvement over my previous efforts. But the question remains, why have I become a less productive photographer? Might it simply be that over forty years I have, both in terms of art and craft, become pickier? That’s certainly a large part of the reason for the change. It’s natural that one becomes more critical of the finished images. But surely this critical faculty should also mean that one made fewer mistakes and more winners? If this were true, with enough practice, we should all get to a stage where every image is a winner.
There are a few reasons why I feel this doesn’t happen. Firstly, as touched upon above, there’s the question of timing. I used to know a photographer who referred to days when you never seemed to be in quite the right place as being rich in fifteen minute weather. Walking across the landscape you might spy the possibility for a photograph some way off but by the time you get there the cloud has gone or the sun passed behind a hill. Similarly, you might walk past something and then glance back a while later to see it bathed in glorious light. In landscape photography, and many other genres, opportunity and timing are key. Missing that decisive moment is maddening but also to some extent inevitable. Planning may reduce the chances of “failure” but can never completely eliminate it. Of course the way to get around this is to make lemonade (otherwise known as adapting to circumstances).
Secondly, the process of distilling an image is actually a very complex one. I have written elsewhere of my belief that making a photograph involves solving a very complicated multi-dimensional and multi-faceted puzzle. To further complicate matters, there is no single correct answer to the puzzle. Some images may be felt to be better than others. But, because of the medium’s inherent subjectivity, what appeals to me most is not necessarily the image that an audience will find the most appealing. Of course, we’re also standing on the shifting sands of time and last year’s favourite image might fall from favour at any moment.
Finally, and most importantly, I feel we need to fail in order to succeed. Whilst searching for a solution most people sketch with the camera. Each test image might be considered a partial failure but each teaches us something more about how to solve the problem at hand.
I now picture image making as a journey across a landscape of the mind. In this analogy, winning images are particularly fine views from high peaks. From every summit we attain we can see other, distant and indistinct - but perhaps loftier - prominences. In order to reach them we must lose height and drop into a cloud-shrouded, swampy hinterland. The route to those new mountains lies hidden. The less successful images that we make belong to this region, where we’re unsure of the way ahead and may get mired in irrelevances.
But, though the images we make on this portion of the journey are less satisfying, they are no less important. The crucial fact is that we can only reach the mountaintops by traversing this lower landscape. So, every image - no matter how humble - is a necessary step on the journey from one shining peak to another. It might even let you make the leap from true mountains to a shining peak of the mind.