Who Are You as a Photographer?
We talk about what is photography to you, but, almost more importantly is who are you as a photographer? Because when we talk about great artists in photography, I look at a great photograph, the artist is in there. I look at you and you're a very well-respected, highly regarded photographer, not just in Australia, but all over the world for lots of reasons, most of them true, as well, I must add. (Peter laughs) As a photographer, what do you represent in photography, because you look at some photographers, and we have friends that for a while, they were anti-digital, and other photographers represent purists, or what they call purists, and other photographers represent the fine art. Who are you as a photographer?
Well, it's sort of a bit hard for me to answer. I suppose who would I like to be thought--
Who would you like to be thought of?
As someone who's a part of the new tradition. So, we look at the tradition of Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams, et cetera, and how they did stuf...
f, we can look at the street photographers of Paris, Willy Ronis, and Henri Bresson, and et cetera, and I see that the generation that we're in at the moment has taken on digital and has transformed the concept of what a photographer can be. Now, you and I know, we all know, that in the darkroom you could do a lot of stuff, but we also now know how much more control we have in this new digital world. And so, we're creating images on ink with inkjet printers, that we used to do on chemical papers, et cetera. And so, I feel that I am a part of that new tradition of photography, and I figure in another 20, 30 years they're going to be looking back on you and me with our gray beards and say, oh, Tony, you wouldn't have shot it like that, you wouldn't have used a hologram, for heaven's sake! (laughing)
Can you do that again?
Then I will, I'll just take my teeth out, I'll try it again.
I think it's so important that we kind of get hold of who we are as photographers, because you start out looking at other photographers and for a while you can be distracted into trying to be like, be like, follow, emulate, use their style. But sooner or later you've got to figure out, okay, who am I as a photographer? There's certain things you do really well and you could do it forever, and there's other things you've got to work at.
When I used to interview all the photographers for the magazine, I still do, I used to admire very much how they had this point of view, how they had a reference. And that was to me, I said, oh, wow, how come they came up with those ideas about photography, and I find that just being in the game for that long, I suddenly, oh, not suddenly, gradually I've worked out that I don't like that idea, but I do like that idea, and gradually, now, I have an opinion after a number of years of being involved. So, I don't think it matters whether you're my age or a lot younger, it's more a matter of how long you've been involved. Can we fast track today? 100%, people are going to get to where we are much quicker than it's taken us because of the technological advancements, I mean, we get feedback on our photos straight away rather than waiting for three weeks, et cetera, so, there is a much expedited path.
That's a skill set that they'll get quicker.
I think that they will also get the feedback from the artistic side as well, too. I think that the creativity is going to propel them forward at a much greater rate because you get instant feedback. Sad is that they'll catch up with us, but anyway. (laughs)
One of the things I was challenged to was by one of our good friends, Peter Adams, one of Australia's top iconic portrait photographers. He's done a book, as you know, I think you're in the book, as well, and he wanted to photograph me and he pushed me to say, who am I as a photographer? What is it that drives me, what is my imagery about? So, for me, when I had to distill it down into almost into a mission statement, and I challenge you all and I challenge the audience to go out and write down who you are. So, for me, I have always been simultaneously fascinated and comforted by chaos and balance. People who know me know that I can be chaotic and organized at the same time, they usually see the chaos, I understand the balance. (Peter laughs) An aerial perspective generally provides a fresh viewpoint on what is familiar, I like that, I like that it's a fresh way of looking at things. And it challenges me to see further than what's literal. It challenges me to look deeper than what's in front of me. You go to those spots that everyone else has photographed. For me, it's a challenge of, how can I photograph this in a way no one else has seen it? That's me, so for each of you I'm suggesting you go and find your own mission statement.
What I'm loving about this conversation, I hope that you guys are agreeing with me and everybody else, is that photography is more than just taking a photograph with a camera. It's so much more about what's happening behind the camera in our brains, isn't it, and that's what I'm getting from this conversation is that we really haven't talked about apertures and f-stops, well, they're the same thing, apertures and shutter speeds, just keeping myself on line here, and that I think is wonderful because so many people come along and want to know how to take those great photographs not understanding how much time, effort, and thought, and whether that's heart or whatever, emotion, has gone into the image that you've created. I just think that if that was the one lesson that everybody took away from today and tomorrow, no matter how many amazing Photoshop skills we show tomorrow, it's that it comes from, whether it's your heart or your brain, that's where you've got to start to take great photographs, it really is.
And that's the thing, the cameras change, technology changes, but the one thing that doesn't is us as people, and it's engaging your heart, engaging your mind, engaging all your experiences and bringing them all to your photos, that's the part that allows you to get the uniqueness out of you, and that's where your pictures will be different. I learned, in the early days of wedding photography, for instance, that I wasn't just photographing dresses and cakes, I wasn't just photographing the car, I was photographing what was invisible to everybody, because the bride and the groom would look at the beautiful photos and they'd go, oh, I love that one. And it might not be the best shot for posing, but there was something in their face, there was a look in their eye, there was just a glance. It wasn't a pixel that said, that's the pixel glance, or the glance pixel. It might've been a romantic gesture, it was something that you couldn't physically touch, but it was infused in the image, and that's what we were trying to capture. Wedding photographers out there will know that, you portrait photographers you photograph people, you know that, and I started to realize that when I'm photographing a bride or photographing a groom, or photographing a portrait, that it was that invisible essence that you're trying to infuse. When advertising you go out and take 100 shots, or 500 shots of a model (makes camera clicking sounds). They're looking for that image where the gesture, the glance, the light, the look, everything comes together in the same way that nails the feeling, nails that impact that they're looking for.
And it's no different in any form of art expression, really, is it? You're looking for that exact precision, that moment, that gesture, that time, that expression--
That sums it up.
That sums it up.
I've often referred to a photograph as a zip file. What it happens is you think of the zip file and you transfer it through the internet, you open it up, and all this information comes out. If you ever go looking through, the younger ones in the audience won't necessarily understand this as much, but, the old shoebox days where you'd pull down the shoebox and you'd start trying to clean up the house and two hours later you've not even moved past the third shoebox because you pull out a photograph of something you weren't even thinking about and you could spend hours just unfolding the memories, and all of this stuff comes out. And that's what a photograph can be, it can be so much more than literal. Go on, you're going to say something.
No, I just wondered, but is that a photo of fine art or is that a memory?
For me, that's just a reason, to me that is a mechanism, or an outcome of photography, it just is. And how you use that is up to you. So, I just recognize that, and I suppose it means that we have, well, not a responsibility, but the challenge is to ask yourself when you're pressing the trigger, why am I pressing it now? Because we have all these opportunities, we go around, I watch Peter work, I watch other people work. Walk, walk, walk, I'm going to shoot here. Or, he'll take the shot and he'll put down the camera, no, that's not quite right, go here, then he'll wait, and, now! What made you press the trigger then?
Normally, I just stand behind you.
And that's why you move, 'cause I'm in your way, year? (Peter laughs) But if you ask yourself, I'm about to press the trigger, if you're taking a portrait of somebody, you do your cultural shots on travel photography, and you're looking for something and there's something that connects. What is it, why are you pressing the trigger? And these are the questions that I ask myself. Not every time I press the trigger, but when I'm looking at the photo later, I'm thinking what I'm going to do with it. I'm asking myself, why did I press the trigger then, what was I responding to? If you're out in the landscape and you're watching somebody far away, far away, and you're waiting... I often see two people, I see they're just standing there waiting, and this person shot 50 shots, and suddenly they take a shot. What did they respond to that they didn't?
And it's really good, because it, sort of, I suppose, articulates what I think, well, certainly I do, and maybe others as well, do, subconsciously, I mean, I'm not necessarily sitting there and thinking, okay, question one, what did I respond to in this photograph and look at it. But I think that subconsciously, as I'm going through, that's exactly what I'm doing. And I think the way that you're explaining this is just maybe establishing for us what we need to do and what we already do subconsciously. Is it enough to be subconscious? How manual are you in this ...
As I've shared that, sometimes I'll write down the note, sometimes I'll be in the car, or on the bus, on the cab coming away from the shoot, I'll just make some notes. And, again, for me, I might write it in a poetic way, or try to, others might just write down three words. And we've talked about this, that some people, they're not into poetry, but even just driving away from an evening and say, like the other night we were photographing a place called Medicine Lake, there was a low cloud, there was a big burn sky, there was a lot of white. And things like pencil-thin trees, or arrow-straight trees, memories of fire and ice. I'm looking at it, and I was thinking, there were blackened trees that were really sharp. So, the feeling that I took away was this really abstract, almost lithographic feel, but there was a splash of red in the trees, and there was a hint of the remnants of a fire, this fire scar, but there's also that red in the trees, which is like an echo of the fire. So, I'm remembering those things just in that little bit of writing. When I worked on that image a bit later that night that's what was going through my head. And they often say, goal setting, write it down. So, just writing something down when you've finished your shoot, getting home, having a journal, sketching, writing a few words, it just might help.
And writing down, I agree with you, as we'll discuss later on in my little 10, 10, 10 thing, because writing down does commit it to your subconscious in a way that just talking about it or thinking about it doesn't.
So, what are you photographing? It could be a shot like this, and for me, when I looked at this, this is in a mining site, it's just a reference. It reminded me of a Meccano set, a reference to big boy's toys, or big girl's toys, or whatever, a past grown ups' toys. Sometimes you look at things and you think, simplicity is actually a strength, I don't need to include everything. In fact, sometimes it's what you take out that's going to strengthen the image. We saw this picture earlier, there was actually two bins in this shot, one was about here, and one was about there. And I had the image in there, and my daughter, she looked at it, and she goes, it's a shame about the bins 'cause they kind of just distract you a little bit. So, I took them out, they weren't relevant to what I was trying to say, I wasn't saying, this is a record of what happened at that moment on that beach, I was trying to say something else. They were hardly able to be seen but enough to distract. So, I think we need to be looking at these pictures and going, what am I trying to say, what was I feeling? What is it I want people to think about when they get the picture? You might remember us being on a boat, and we were coming back from shooting at the back end of Lord Howe Island. And we're standing on the back of the boat, and I'm sure you've all been in that situation, in a big sea, a 10-foot sea and the boat's moving up and down. Some of us were comfortable on the boat, one of us wasn't, wasn't you, sitting there, feeling quite ill and not very comfortable at the time. And I was bored, so, you're holding the camera and if you ever try to hold a Phase One on a moving boat and get a still shot, it's not that easy. And then, watching this land, I go, how am I going to get this photograph? And then, the thought went through my mind, well, really, what is the photograph? The photograph is the experience I'm having standing on a moving boat, in a big sea, and so what if it's a little bit blurred? I mean, this guy changes the color of water and he lets the clouds go by for four minutes. So, I produced this image, which my colleagues didn't particularly want to see in the exhibition, but I like because when I looked at it it actually shared the experience of being on that boat. That's what I was trying to say. Historically, you go to a photography competition they might look at it, and go, well, I'm sorry, it's not sharp. It's not meant to be sharp! When I was standing there I couldn't see anything anyway, we were moving around too much.
Do you know why I'm laughing? I took the same shot. (laughing)
I haven't admitted that before.
So, I suppose part of what I'm trying to share and what we're trying to say here is that if you can learn to see the every day in a completely different way you'll start to find your uniqueness. We think that because someone's been there before us and taken this shot, why do we think that's the only shot? Why do we think that's the right shot? It doesn't have to be the right shot. People go back to Yosemite and take the same shot that Ansel took, and sometimes they try to get it close and if they don't get it close enough people go, oh, it's not bad, but it's not as good as Ansel. (Peter laughs) But if you just let go of that and say, well, what do I feel? Use Ansel's shot, use the Peter Eastway shot, use the Art Wolfe shot, as the starting point for inspiration, but then from there on make it your picture. Sometimes, turning bad ideas, looking down from the air, I look at something and I think, wow, something resonates, and I look down and go, isn't that interesting? It looks like a stadium. And I look at the picture like this and I think, wow, that's like a coliseum, it's like a football stadium. There's the car parks, there's the, sort of, walk areas for the people, and that's why I took the picture. Now, is that a good reason? I don't care if you think it's a good reason. It's the reason I found it interesting, it's up to me now to put a frame around it and compose it in a way that you might find it interesting.
I can improve the poetry there, 'cause if it's a coliseum it's just going to be a car park for the horses and carts, though, isn't it?
It could be.