Mostly, photographers learn the camera settings and compositional techniques first. Those basics of photography are essential. But when we have mastered those, what do we do next?
Let’s travel back in time to the International Museum of Photography & Film in the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. It’s 1975, and they put on a display of work called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape. It was curated by William Jenkins, who described the theme as “stylistic anonymity.” Unlike the photographic art that preceded it, it concentrated on the content of the photo instead of the artistry. The photos had huge amounts of information but abandoned the idea of having beauty, emotion, or opinion contained within them.
This approach went against photography’s traditions, where a photo’s artistic merits were previously considered all important. During the 1970s and 1980s, those standards of photography were questioned, and the boundaries around what was acceptable were pushed, which had a big impact on the art.
That was long before every other university offered a graduate photography course, where tutors encourage students to break free of the accepted constraints. Sadly, many undergraduate courses have become tick-box exercises aimed at doing little more than providing students with a graduation certificate instead of them exploring and pushing the boundaries of their imaginations and creativity. Of course, better universities still run courses that do more than teach a fixed syllabus, and luckily, art-based courses, like photography, are more likely to allow idiosyncrasy.
A big problem that photographers face is that the norms are popular. A photograph is less likely to be widely appreciated if it breaks away from what the majority is used to. Most of us want our photos to be accepted. That approval may come in the form of prizes at the local camera club, likes on Instagram, or sales on our website. Leaving behind what is widely acknowledged as acceptable can bring failure. However, we can learn from failure, and it can lead us to something better. Occasionally, it can bring a paradigm shift, as we saw in the 1970s and 80s.
To illustrate that, let’s look at something that happened long before the invention of photography. It is believed that René Descartes had a difficult childhood. He was a poor student. It’s said he failed his entrance exams to the University of Poitiers in France in 1615, aged 19. Subsequently, he joined the army and undertook a more independent study path. That independent thinking, without the influence of traditional academic institutions, allowed him to develop his own ideas and theories. Ultimately, this led to him to ground-breaking work in mathematics and physics, and today he is known as the father of western philosophy. Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have failed his university entrance exam, as did Albert Einstein.
Each of those individuals changed the way we think about the world. In the field of photography, it’s happened too; Cartier Bresson failed the baccalaureate several times before finally being accepted at the art academy set up by the Cubist painter André Lohte.
How can we take to challenge the mundane? The answer is to think creatively. The mistake many people make is to think creativity is inventing something out of the blue; it isn’t. Creativity is taking what already exists and reinventing it by combining it with other things in new and, hopefully, interesting ways. That could start by mixing genres.
Pick two genres from this non-exhaustive list and think of ways you could combine them:
8. Fine art
14. Black and white
21. Still life.
Then, you can add one or two of the following techniques:
A. Long exposure
B. High-speed photography
D. HDR (High Dynamic Range)
F. Macro photography
H. Black and white
J. Infrared photography
K. Double exposure
L. Light painting
N. Motion blur
O. Selective focus
P. Shallow depth of field
S. Multiple exposures
T. Pinhole photography
U. High Speed
W. Intentional camera movement
Now, apply any of the following styles:
vii. Fine art
x. Cross processing
xi. Push processing
xii. Pull processing
xiii. Bleach bypass
xiv. Hand coloring
xv. Lith printing
xvii. Gum bichromatex
viii. Platinum printing
xx. Van Dyke brown
Just taking one from each list, there are over 9,200 combinations. If you allow up to two from each list, there are over ten million combinations.
It doesn’t stop there. You can add the styles of different nations, emulate different film types, obstruct the lens using prisms, use the “wrong” focal length, try different editing techniques, layer blending modes, and so on. Then think about the vast number of separate subjects there are to photograph, plus using unusual camera settings, and out-of-the-ordinary lighting. Even using different cameras from the majority can help you remove a layer of commonality from your images. The possibilities seem infinite.
Experiment! There is a good chance that some of your experiments fail. But as Descartes, Nietzsche, and Einstein discovered, that failure is a good thing.
That isn’t prescriptive. There’s nothing wrong with producing photos that don’t push the boundaries of what is accepted. It’s okay producing prints influenced by what has come before. A lot of the time, we just want to enjoy taking photos and putting our hard-earned camera and compositional skills to work. For me, there is nothing more enjoyable than the experience of standing on a cold, windswept beach at dawn and photographing the sun as it comes up behind the island that sits a mile off the shore. I’ve done it dozens of times, and I am sure others have too, and I will come away with crowd-pleasing images. Nevertheless, sometimes, I also want to push the boundaries and shoot differently. Even when the photos are disappointing, I can learn from them and try again.
Do you experiment? Do you intend to? It would be great to hear about that in the comments and perhaps see your results in the comments.