Monday, July 23, 2007


I'm reading Josh Waitzkin's book, "The Art of Learning." In the book he writes about having presence in chess, and your work and life. It is, if anything, the most important part of playing chess. It's the idea of being, as they say, "in the moment", fully mindful and conscious yourself and what you are doing. And while his book, is focused on chess and his later pursuits in life, he is also focusing it on life.

And in the same vein, it is critical in photography. You must have presence of mind and consciousness to be a good photographer. And that's before you even upack the camera. This is especially true with large format photography. Why, and why not other forms?

Well, it is true in other forms, such as fashion, studio, portrait and other forms where you control the whole environment from the setting and lighting to the final product. It's not always true in other forms, such as photojournalism, nature, landscape, sports, etc. where you are working in a dynamic environment where everything isn't in your control. You still need to be present in both and exercise presence of mind and consciousness, but less in some forms as you can only capture what's presented to you.

And why large format photography? Well, for one, unless you have a few tens of thousands of dollars to spend on digital back or a highend Sinar digital camera, everything you do is mental. If you don't plug your brain in, all you get is crap, a lot of exposed film producing nothing significant. And you get it back from the lab or your own darkroom with a big "WTF?", moment, besides the $4-8 per sheet (less for 4x5 and a lot more for 8x10 sheets) you just blew.

Ok, so you think we're always are mindfull and conscious? Not if you have some experience and memory of those days when you just can't seem to think straight. As the song goes, "A bowl of oatmeal stared me down and won." Try that when you carry your 30+ lbs of large format gear somewhere with something in mind, and it just doesn't come together - meaning you just can't see what you thought you wanted or what is there, or you just can't seem to think the image through.

Or worse you can't seem to get the process down and you don't expose the film or pre-expose it. Back to WTF thoughts, because in large format photography, it's 15-60 minutes of work for a minute or so (mostly but some exposures are longer in minutes) or a few steps and your done. And the reality is that you may not have seen something the film captured, which means, yes, it's a WTF moment again.

Why so long for the last minute? It's because you control the camera's position, lenses, setup, focusing, front and back movements, filters, and so on to get the image on the ground glass. You then determine the exposure from your light meter or other camera, and what bracketing you want to do. This is what takes the time. Then you insert the film holder, cock the shutter, remove the film cover, release the shutter, and insert the film cover. This sequence takes about a minute after all the time getting to that point in the proces.

And all of this doesn't account for the errors you can make with the composition, camera, and exposure readings. Add that to the mix, and presence of mind and consciousness is what makes it all happen, and hopefully, right. Or not. And your box of exposed sheets are treasures or lessons.

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