Get close (to yourself)
To make good photographs you need to be close to what you’re shooting. But first you need to be close to yourself.
Legendary Magnum photographer Robert Capa’s dictum, “If your photographs aren’t good enough you’re not close enough” has left a hefty imprint on the photographic world.
Photographers have interpreted these words literally to mean that being closer to a scene simply makes for better, more immersive shots. Others, like Olivia Arthur, see it as guidance for truly getting into the worlds of the people they’re photographing. Getting close to people you’re shooting allows you to understand them better, connect with their emotions, and thus make stronger photos. As Alex Webb puts it, getting close involves “getting emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically close.”
Having focused mainly on street photography with a 28mm fixed lens camera, the Ricoh GR (which I wrote about in a previous post), over the past year both those understandings resonate with me. Of the photos I’ve made so far with the GR the ones I like best are the ones I’ve shot from close-up. They’re photos where the subjects fill the frame, there’s a bit of movement, and you can see the wrinkles on their faces, the look in their eyes. I’ve found that these shots typically come from me hanging around a scene for a while and taking lots of photos, slowly becoming part of the fabric so that people hardly notice my camera anymore. That has happened a few times when shooting at my local beach, where I walk in the evenings with my camera. Likewise, my other favourite shots are street portraits. Shots where I’ve taken the time to talk with someone, get to know them a bit, make both of us comfortable and then snapped a few frames.
To date, though, my best close-up photos are the ones of my partner. I think this is because we’re emotionally connected to each other, comfortable in each other’s presence, and I look at her through the lens of attachment and deep knowing. We already understand each other’s worlds. I’m starting to see the value in photographing the people closest to me. This is something that Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol is a master of, as evidenced in his debut book Sabine (2004), which documents his relationship and life with his girlfriend in Greenland. If you look at Sobol’s other work shooting people (presumably strangers) in different parts of the world, you’ll see a similar intimacy and closeness in the shots. They’re raw, emotional, full of feeling. I think that learning to get close with people you’re already connected with provides a solid foundation for being able to get close and enter the world of others you want to photograph but don’t know.
To get close with your photos get close to yourself
Lately, I’ve been struggling a bit with my photography. I haven’t felt the requisite level of closeness when I’m out shooting in the streets. At the moment I’m in a new city, Bogota, Colombia, so I feel like I should be out making loads of good street shots and immersing myself in the new environment. But often I’ll go out walking with my camera and hardly hit the shutter button, or come home with shots that to my mind lack any real feeling. Somehow, I’m not fully connecting my photography with this environment. On top of that, I’m in the process of transitioning from mostly post-processing on my phone to desktop post-processing. I’m using a trial version of Alien Skin’s Exposure X2 software for this (which I plan to review at a later date). Having proper desktop post-processing software has opened up a new world for me. But it’s also come with its own set of challenges. For one, it seems like there are now far too many options when it comes to getting a consistent look and feel to my shots. I’ve been working on a series of black and white photos the past week and have now run them through three different post-processing pathways. I think I’ve finally settled on the one I like best but it’s been a trying week.
Earlier this week, I was doing some post-processing with pathway three at a local library. After a few hours, I had sore eyes and was trying hard to repress a small internal voice begging me to try a fourth post-processing option just in case it might be better. I packed up my laptop and went for a walk outside the library. I noticed that one of the canals outside the library was filled with water and purple bougainvillea leaves. The leaves must have been stewing in the water for a while, since they’d infused it with a beautiful purple hue. I had my camera with me and went about playing around with angles, trying to capture the scene. I was hoping that someone might walk up to the water and do something interesting, allowing me to a get a street style shot. But, besides the arrival of a little bird, no one showed up. I wasn’t feeling it.
I then went and sat quietly at the water’s edge, allowing myself to properly take in my surroundings and clear my head. Leaning over the water a bit, I realized I could play around with my shadow, my flash, the purple water and floating leaves to make, what I think, is a nice shot. Not an award-winning photo by any means but a picture that is close to me. What I discovered as I did this, moving my body and hand to create the shadow, playing around with the aperture and, importantly, taking a breath before each shot (a good friend of mine taught me this as a way to steady the hands) was that it was the most fun I’d had with my camera in a while. I wasn’t thinking about post-processing or trying to nab the best street shot. Rather, I was fully present in the moment, connecting with myself and a serendipitous splash of colour. I had time to breath, focus carefully and get the shot I wanted. A shot that will always remind me of that afternoon outside the library in Bogota.
The exercise made me think about what it takes to make good photos. Yes, you need to be close to the action, close to the subjects, connecting with the human element, and properly engaged in the environment you’re shooting in. But, I think, you also need to be close to yourself. What does that mean? It means being connected to your emotions, understanding how things and people make you feel. It means decluttering your mind so that you can be present and focused on what you’re shooting. It also means having a clear idea of what type of images you want to produce and being close to this vision. This means knowing what you want to communicate in pictures. It means being present and having the confidence to make the photos you know you’re capable of making. That, I’ve found, is one of the biggest challenges in my photographic journey so far. I sometimes find myself distracted with trying out different styles of shooting, focusing for a while on colour and then on black and white, and then doubting if what I’m doing is authentic. And now with learning to do desktop post-processing I’m getting even more distracted. From what I’ve read, this is part of many people’s photographic development.
My aim is to keep mindful, remember to have fun with my camera, and make sure that when I’m shooting the things and people I’m interested in I do my best to communicate what I’m feeling. This, I know, will require staying close to myself. And now I have a photo to remind me of that if I ever forget it.
All images © 2016–2017 Brendon Bosworth.