“A contact sheet is a window in the thought process of a photographer. It can be considered a photographer’s “sketchbook”—something not often seen by others. Each photographer sees things so very differently from every other that it is almost impossible to compare them. Photographers are like musicians who play similar notes on their instruments and yet the sounds they create are completely unique.”
Steve Crist, “Contact Sheet”
Late in March, I was going through images I shot of Feras Hdaib, a hairstylist, for a little profile piece for the business section of the CA called “My Life, My Job.” It was an enjoyable shoot, because it wasn’t the usual lame portrait session of someone in a visually dead office, but a scene of action and potential moments where I didn’t have to direct the situation. It’s not difficult to get an interesting image of a hairstylist. Using the reflections from the mirrors is the easiest approach, and can quickly become cliché. The room where Feras worked was the about the size of a walk-in closet, so the mirror option was pretty much non-existent. I’m a big fan of layers in images, and you can see these images are very similar, but that was my point. I found the image I kind of wanted, not an exact image, but elements in a certain spots. Then it becomes a matter of chiseling and waiting for the elements to line up.
A problem came up in the editing process of selecting the right photo to turn for the paper. I got down to about 10 or so similar photos and ultimately went with a random reaction on choosing the photo to turn in. This, to me, is one of the downsides of being a young freelancer, a lack of unbiased perspective of working through the photographic thought process. In school, there is the benefit of the classroom and friendly competition of colleagues who would respond sometimes with the brutal honesty of something like, “Eh, this doesn’t do anything for me.”
As a freelancer, my newsroom is my Gmail inbox and I’m more or less my own editor. Which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the day. I know if I turn in a nut and bolts kind of shot as well as something a little more creative, I can usually bet the newspaper is going to run with a nuts and bolts kind of shot. If I’m feeling risky, I’ll send in only the creative shot and wait to see if I get called to give them something more nuts and bolts. The downside I feel is with little feedback comes little growth.
So, I’m left with the echoes of critiques I’ve heard at conferences and workshops I attended over the last 6 years I have pursued photojournalism. The big thing people ask you to show them is your portfolio. Now, I’m not going to say don’t have a portfolio, but I began to realize how little one can grow from a portfolio critique. Either you get response on the structure of your portfolio, which is handy, but everyone has a different approach and preference, or you get comments like “well if you had just moved to the left about a foot, this would have been a nice shot.” Good advice, sure, but it would almost be as good to say to get rid of a shot like that because its over and you missed. Just be sure to file away in your mind to move a little to the left the next time you are in a similar situation.
Most portfolio critiques I walked away from, I would always remember my flaws, and not necessarily learning to see images better. Where I learned to see better was at workshops with someone hovering over my shoulder looking at every frame I took on a project as they say things to me like “what were you thinking here? Why didn’t you stick with this? If a situation like this were to happen again, how could this shot be better?” Going through a couple days of that kind of experience can drastically change the way you see images.
Now, I will say again, I am not against having a portfolio. I think a portfolio is a photographer’s best marketing tool, but it’s not a sharpening block.
I read the book Magnum: Fifty Years on the Front Lines a while ago and one of many things that struck me about the early days of that photo agency was when an aspiring photographer plucked up the courage to seek out one of the giants like Henri Cartier-Bresson and show him their work, he would almost immediately go to their contact sheets rather than looking at their portfolio of their best work. He was more interested in the process of their eye than their final result.
I don’t know, but I feel we are losing something in our modern age with the need to generate more content for quantity and not quality.
Shoot, shoot and shoot.
Then, shoot some more (why? Because you can.) until you got that “perfect” image.
Then delete all the bad images.
But what happens when spend so much time shooting to cover all the angles that you stopped seeing the heart of the situation?
I am glad the paper I work for does not pressure me into shooting for galleries except on the rare occasion. Even then, it’s usually collaboration from the entire staff and no one person is dumped with the need to provide an overly large supply of photos.
I’m all for exploring a situation for the best image, but this mindset of just mindless shooting for content or for online galleries to get hits on a site, just feels so self-destructive. How is anyone going to grow by going into to situations, camera’s blazing and then editing in the aftermath of hundreds maybe even thousands of photos.
To what end I am writing this? Probably my frustration about my own solidarity, I guess a sense of nostalgic for the dark room days when there was time for people to stop and look and discuss the process instead of the assembly line way of life we currently live in. Also, to record a thought I had in between assignments that’s been brewing in my mind for some time and probably to complain for the sake of complaining. Maybe I’m advocating the idea of sharing our sketchbooks with one another to encourage communal growth. I’m still not really sure.
Well, for whatever it’s worth, here is an excerpt from my sketchbook.
Let me make a disclaimer: I’ve been trying to write this post since March and if I felt like I was sounding too pretentious or preachy I put would it away to try writing more a couple weeks later. My only intent here is to share an internal stream of thought. Also, I don’t want to imply these particular photos are anything extraordinary. Every time I look through them, I find more things wrong with them. I’m still not even sure I selected the best image. These are merely the photos that trigged the idea of this post and seemed like a good example I had of seeing something and working through the thought process of finding the image.