Just What Are You Trying to Say, Anyway?
Originally posted May 24, 2016
Back in the spring of 2008, when I was just beginning to get back into “serious” photography, I signed up for and attended a Popular Photography workshop in Durango, Colorado. I’ve loved Colorado since I was a little boy and we would visit my Denver-based uncle and aunt at their rustic cabin at Eldora in the Front Range. So when the chance came along to combine my growing renewed interest in clicking the shutter with the opportunity for some quality instruction in one of Colorado’s premier locations, I jumped at it.
The instructors for the workshop were Beth Wald and Tom Bol, both of them very successful photographers with perennial National Geographic contributor Wald perhaps outranking Bol, at least a bit. But they both did a great job, and the workshop was a fun and valuable experience, the value of which, to me, was probably enhanced because it came at just the right time in my development as a digital – as opposed to film – photographer.
There was one incident, however, during the time we were all together that I found kind of frustrating, involving a photo I essentially “grab-shot” at the gift shop and restaurant at Mesa Verde National Landmark. At noon, the line for the cafeteria snaked directly past an elderly Native American woman who was weaving what appeared to be a rug on a wooden loom. I had stowed my equipment, except for my camera, but asked politely if I could photograph her and she agreed. All the while this was going on, the line was moving, so I had to work fast or lose my place and go to the back. I raised my D300 with the on-camera flash popped up and took one shot, which when I looked at it later, I really liked. It showed the wonderful cragginess of the woman’s skin, her colorful native dress and displayed to an extent the process in which she was engaged.
At the end of the day, we were to show to one of the instructors what we considered to be our best work that day. This day I was assigned to Tom Bol and showed him the weaver photo along with a couple of other so-so pictures. I noted for him that the weaver photo was purely a grab shot…an opportunity that fleetingly presented itself that I – well – grabbed. After briefly criticizing the harsh light from the on-camera flash, he asked me, “What are you trying to say with this photo?”
I was quite taken aback and stammered something akin to “I guess I don’t know.” There followed a lecture from Tom on the importance of A) knowing what you wanted to say, and B) saying it. Reviewing it in my mind today, however, I’m sorry I didn’t say something closer to, “Not a darned thing,” which was the absolute truth. As much as one gets that “saying” question – especially at workshops – I don’t know that I’ve ever made a photo that I wanted to “say” something other than, “Hey, take a look at this. It’s (take your pick) beautiful, startling, heart-touching, curious, or interesting.” With interesting probably being the best of all. To me, a photo that is not at least a bit interesting is not worth shooting. And the weaver at Mesa Verde was indeed interesting.
The reason I have not blogged on this previously is absolutely not because I can’t accept criticism. I usually deserve it, and I can and do accept it. But I’ve thought that perhaps I was the only photographer who thought like this when it comes to saying something with my photography. Recently, however, in reading a biography of Dorothea Lange, I came across a quote from Jack Delano, himself a legendary photographer, musician, composer and author, who said, “I have always been motivated not by something inside me that needed to be expressed but rather by the wonder of something I see that I want to share with the rest of the world.”
So there you go. No more complicated than that, and the next time someone ventures to ask what I am trying to say with a photo, my answer will indeed be along the lines of, “Nothing really.”
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