Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sketching for Photographers

You know, I've gotten a bit of crap for picking the name "Kneejerk" for my studio. I'm either told it sounds outright stupid or just plain unprofessional. And a week ago that would've mattered to me but today I could not give less of a f***. It is the perfect name because it is the way I practice photography.

Last week I made a trip up to Philly to enjoy my birthday and St. Paddy's in good company. I forgot how inspirational a long drive can be, especially when taken in the late morning in sunny weather, everything lit up with midday sun and contrasting against a solid blue gradient of sky. The 2 hour trip from Baltimore to Philly may as well have been a vacation on its own, with good music and barren roads serving as some modern cowboy backdrop. By the time I'd actually made it into the city the feel-good vibe was so strong I couldn't wait to snatch up my camera and be obnoxious to strangers.

Not all images have to be "art" to be good. Photographers sketch in much the same way as illustrators and painters and other traditional artists. We wander around not knowing what we want to draw so instead of drawing nothing we draw everything. There is at least as much to be gained from random, indirect shooting as there is from the premeditated. It hones that instinct that recognizes a strong image.

The photo above is a knee-jerk image.

I was wandering aimlessly up and down South Street, Philadelphia with camera in hand and no subject in mind. I was simply looking. One of the nice things about street shooting in the city, especially such a busy district such as South Street, is the manner in which the life and activity changes so rapidly. Minute to minute the people changed and that in turned changed the place. When the sketching began I was passing out cigarettes to homeless in return for a headshot. By the middle of the afternoon I was enthralled by steep shadows creeping longer and longer as the sun made its daily retreat. Greenpeace petitioners to store clerks to street vendors to power lines, pedestrians and street signage, all had a place on my camera.

Once the clock hands were looking more vertical I received the call I'd been waiting for from the person I was rendezvousing with. I cut through a side street to meet up with him and noticed the shadow of a pole down the alley. Most haphazardly I snapped the camera back to a tilt and snapped a frame. It was a knee-jerk motion, a knee-jerk reaction. And the image it produced was, certainly to me, beautiful. Strong shadows, rich texture, natural vignette. It was the image to be my icon for the day.

Now, a photographer cannot depend on such chance reaction alone to propel his work into legend, but it's a crucial skill to master nonetheless. Snap-to recognition of opportunity is essential - to know what impacts you immediately and to immediately act upon it. Knee-jerk imagery. Sketching for photographers. As any first grade art teacher would impress upon you, "Practice makes perfect". The "perfect" part might be a bit of a stretch but it is certainly a step in the right direction.