How Your Photographic Instincts Are More Important Than Technology

How Your Photographic Instincts Are More Important Than Technology

One of the most used cards in our newfound world of quarantine Bingo is the “clean out the garage” card. After doing my third round of this particular task yesterday afternoon, I found something new.

And by “new,” I mean old, very old, but new to me since I’d forgotten it was there. It’s not like it was hiding. It was right there out in the open. It was even on a lower shelf, right around eye level. It’s just that, like many long stored away items hiding in plain sight, my eyes had apparently been conditioned to look right past it. So, what was it? Some exotic and rare camera that I can brag about as being a collector’s dream? Well, not quite. In actuality, it was just an average everyday slide projector.

Now, many of you below a certain age may not know what a slide projector is. You may be too young to have been unlucky enough to spend many a childhood evening sitting through seemingly endless slide projections of your parents' slightly out-of-focus trip to The Netherlands or that summer they spent in Rome. For those of you closer to my age, you may be old enough to have hosted one or two endless slide presentations yourself, marveling at the beauty of your own exposed Ektachrome while your friends graciously disguise their yawns between supportive refrains of “wow, what a shot!”

It’s been years since technology gave me the opportunity to bore my friends digitally, so my own slide projector has long since retired. But after snatching it down off the shelf, plugging it in, and discovering that the bright if slightly yellowed light still cast a usable glow, I quickly found myself sent down a rabbit hole of several hours digging through my old shoebox for transparencies and being transported back in time to my life before I ever even picked up a digital camera.

Mixed in among the various camera tests and homework assignments was “the” series. I maybe shouldn’t refer to it with such reverence, as I am literally the only person on Earth who has ever seen it. It was a series of images from an impromptu portrait session I took while on vacation in Mexico. The model was someone I had met on the trip and somehow convinced to come back to my suite to take her picture.

I have no idea how I was able to do that kind of convincing over 20 years ago, especially considering that at the time, as she could probably tell, I had very little idea of how to actually operate my camera and was decidedly learning on the job. Even over 20 years later and as a professional photographer, I am still petrified anytime I try to approach a stranger on the street for a portrait, let alone try to convince an attractive woman who I barely know to trust me enough to come to my room for a shoot. How I had the boldness to do so at a time I was still learning the craft is beyond me. I guess it was the courage of youth. Oh, and before your mind goes wild with the obvious assumption, the suggestion of a photoshoot was exactly that. I had photography on my mind. Nothing more.

That’s not to say I didn’t find her attractive. Undoubtedly, that was part of the reason I wanted to photograph her in the first place. And in the resulting set of images, there is enough skin showing to make them less than ideal for posting online, hence why I've decorated this article with other images from the shoebox.

From a technical standpoint, there’s also a good bit of motion blur and slight focus misses. These were the days before I fully understood things like shutter speed. I was using a fully manual camera with slow black and white slide film and manual focus. This could also be technically termed as the first shoot I had ever done with a model. Moreover, the location, the temperature, and the subject herself lent themselves to less wardrobe as opposed to more, and the shoot quickly developed into my first unofficial nude shoot as well. As if trying to remember my camera settings wasn't enough of a struggle for me back then, with each item of clothing the subject removed, the steadiness of my handheld camera would also experience a noticeable decline. I’m not proud of that. And obviously, I’ve shot hundreds of beautiful people over the course of my career since then, and I’m happy to say that butterflies are no longer a problem. But, back then, it was the first time I’d done a real subject shoot at all, let alone one so revealing, and I had yet to master my nerves.

Given all the circumstances and the technical flaws, one might think that the resulting series of images would have been a disaster. Yet, over 20 years later, I am still energized when I look at those shots. There is something so incredibly raw and alive about the session. My skills as a photographer were nowhere near fully formed, but my instincts were there. 

I just finished reading a biography on the legendary director Mike Nichols, where someone quotes him as saying that his main job as a director is to spend the bulk of his time during rehearsal getting his actors back to the instinct they had on the first take. In other words, that initial feeling in their gut was usually the right way to go. His job was getting them to trust that.

I think this applies to our art as well. Oftentimes, we start with a creative instinct in our gut and then shift to our brains to layer our technical skill on top of it to create what we think the world wants to see. In the process, we gain polish, but we might also lose some of the power of the initial artistic spark. When I look at this series of images I took in the days before I was even capable of adding that polish, there’s an immediacy and intimacy that I’d have a hard time replicating even today, despite having far more advanced technology. Come to think of it, if I were to do that shoot today, I might have to actually work harder to get the same mood, battling the natural inclination of IBIS to smooth out those little nervous micro jitters that caused all those perfect imperfections in the first place. The shots would have looked more technically proficient, but, oddly enough, the results would not have been nearly as powerful.

At their base, the series is simply a record of two people in a room with natural light streaming in through an open window having a moment together. And, after all, isn’t that all photography is at the most basic level? Two people are communicating through a lens. Ironically, due to my own lack of technical skill at the time, the rawness of the images gives them a certain lack of pretense. They are real. The woman in the photographs is real, and the character portrayed feels lived in. No amount of technology or Photoshop could ever provide that.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying that polish and technical proficiency aren’t good things or objectives that you should pursue. Nor am I suggesting that accurate focus becomes a thing of the past. Rather, the experience was just a reminder to me that technical perfection isn’t the most important part of a photograph. It can be an important contributor. But, just because an image is technically perfect, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s actually good.

Like any portrait, the images in the series say as much about the artist as the subject. They are a reflection of who I was then, for better and worse. They reveal how I felt about the subject and how I understood women at that moment in time. Interestingly, while the aesthetic looks nothing like what I would shoot today, the images still feel a part of my larger body of work. The technique has certainly changed. But the artistic voice behind the stories and the way I portray characters is still the same nearly a quarter-century later.

Sadly, I quickly lost touch with the subject. After our brief meeting during those couple days at the hotel, we never saw each other again. I am curious to know what became of her. It’d be interesting to see what the same series would look like if I were to shoot it today. No doubt, it would be more technically refined. The compositions would be more considered, and certain shots would never have lived past the memory card. But would the collective final result actually be better? Honestly, I don’t know.  

So for now, looking at those images is simply a reminder that no matter how far technology progresses, the power of our images is not solely a function of technical merit. The power comes from the connection you are able to form with your subject and how freely you are able to share your artistic voice. As strange as it is to say, all these years later, I still wish to one day be able to accomplish what I did back then. Or, as Mike Nichols might say, put in the work necessary to accomplish that gut instinct I already had on the first take.

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9 Comments

Alex Yakimov's picture

Great story, Christopher. Of course we are curious after reading.

Steven Weston's picture

I'm curious also. I hope it turned out as well as my shoot did. I still have the contact sheet. All puns unintended.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thank you. I am really proud of the shots. I given thought to mounting an exhibition with them at some point.

Joshua Boldt's picture

great article

jim hughes's picture

Interesting, yes. I sat through (and appeared in) those endless slide shows as a kid. Remembering the dark room and the whirring fan... and the chunk-chunk when Dad finally moved on to the next one...

Christopher Malcolm's picture

I find that chunk chunk sound oddly gratifying :-)

Jon Kellett's picture

Whilst not the key message of the story, I remember slide projectors early into my school life but never had the opportunity to sit through one outside of school. Imagine if instead of posting images on social media and/or our websites, we instead invited friends to our house, or to a restaurant and showed them images on our massive TV or a big tablet and discussed the images.

Wouldn't that be nice? We could discuss what made us like an image or record an image, we could see how others react and learn (potentially) from that.

To tie in with the thrust of the article, wouldn't that also help teach us to trust our instinct and to also help sharpen it?

Christopher Malcolm's picture

That's a good idea. You should set up a viewing session. I've done that before, and you would likely get a lot of positive stuff from it.