Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Day 38, Learning 38: Pre-Visualization and Improvisation

Let me take the long road.  Most people in the photography business are liars.  Camera makers lie by saying that a great (new) camera will make great images.  Photography enthusiasts will insist it's not the camera, "it's the glass... spend your money on good glass."  That's a lie, too.  Professionals often insist that it's all about light.  Master the Light and you'll create "stunners."  Each argument ads a little bit of truth to the matter, but that one's pretty much a lie, too.  Annie Leibovitz's portfolio is full of crappily lit images that somehow manage to mesmerize.  You want to create a stunning photograph?  Do your homework.

A lot of folks talk about pre-visualization, but I've yet to see a blueprint for how to do it.  Being a playwright and stage director, I know my craft is all about pre-visualizing what the play will look like, how the characters will reveal their internal workings.  The playwright Athol Fugard once described his craft as creating "truths the hand can touch."  Making an abstract truth into something physical.  Photography is the same.

One form of pre-visualizing takes place in the moment, camera in hand and the subject before you.   It's called "having an eye for..." and it's pretty much impossible to teach; you can only nurture it.  No, today I'm writing about pre-visualization that happens with homework.  It's this:  learn your subject. 

If it's a person, learn their passions.  Learn their place in the world, and most specifically their place in the environment you're about to shoot them in.  Think about what emotions that person's life evokes, and then how you can convey it in posture, gesture, their dress, or the setting. Tell a story; your story of them, or their story of themselves.  Read Gregory Heisler's 50 Portraits; hidden in the narrative of each image is the story he tells about how he decided to take that particular image, his pre-visualization homework.  It's a steal at $25.

If you're subject is a place, learn it's history.  Understand its light before you get there.  Wedding photographers will often visit the church the day before the wedding, at the same time.  Ask, what belongs in this space?  What doesn't?  This is pre-visualization.

When Illy Coffee asked me to cover  their Valentine's Day event and photograph members of their staff, I Googled the event location; then I Yelped it.  I found pictures.  They told me I had white walls for bouncing light, a big bay window, several nooks and interesting paintings/displays.  The online images also told me the space was modern, edgy, with bold, cool-toned colors.  I jotted down several options for each person on the shoot list.  The owner-- master of his environment; the award-winning barista, connected to his machine.  Giorgio Milos, the barista, was very animated; he connected quickly with people and knew how to work a camera for a good photograph.  Not surprisingly, one of my favorite images of him was a moment of quiet, rest.  It was something I couldn't have planned in advance; it was improvisation. It was my story of him.

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