22 Mar 2007
I subscribe to the theory that photography, like any other artistic endeavor, takes practice. I believe that a photographer must be involved in making pictures every day. It is arrogant on my part to assume that I will have the chops when I need them if I pick up a camera only when inspiration strikes or every other sunny Saturday afternoon.
An accomplished pianist, no matter how naturally gifted, practices every day to build and maintain their skills. They don’t skip a day because they are feeling uninspired. They practice so that when the time comes to perform, they will be prepared.
With this in mind I take pictures daily; rain or shine, inspiration or apathy. For those days when it doesn’t come easy, I have projects or themes I can fall back on. One of these projects is a boring, gray, concrete bridge. This is not a glamorous bridge but a utilitarian bump in the road that carries traffic over a small lagoon without the distraction of dramatic architecture or awe-inspiring views. It serves my purpose in that it is accessible (5 minutes walk from my desk) and that, once you get past first impressions and if you’re prepared to work a little, it offers a multitude of photographic possibilities.
My boring, gray bridge started out as the photographic equivalent of musical scales, it was what I photographed when I had nothing better to shoot, but it has evolved into something else. I am increasingly proud of the images I have assembled on my regular bridge visits and this simple self-assignment has taught me more than I could have imagined.
I am always fearful that when I visit the bridge that I will just repeat myself and won’t find anything new to shoot. Considering the banality of the subject, it is amazing that this has not happened to me yet. Every time I go I somehow manage to find something new to shoot or a new approach to shooting something I’ve shot before. It can be as simple as a change in the light or a small detail or angle I’ve previously overlooked. This is not to say I’m an amazing photographer. No, I think any photographer could try this kind of project and amaze themselves in the process. Choosing one subject to revisit and re-shoot over and over is a much more powerful exercise in exploration and seeing than I ever thought. It forces you to stretch and reach in ways you don’t expect. These reaches may be subtle, even imperceptible to your audience but they are valuable and revealing to the photographer.
What else has the bridge taught me? I’ve noticed that when the weather is nice I get lazy. I rely on the strength of the blue of the sky to provide drama. When the weather is overcast or raining when everything is more monochromatic, I work harder to make the shot; the diffused light makes for less blatantly obvious dramatic visuals but makes for pictures that are more about the bridge than they are about the Californian sky.
The bridge has also taught me that, just because a subject is dull or overlooked, doesn’t mean that it’s not worth photographing. In fact, because it’s obviously dull it makes you work harder to dig for the hidden, photographic potential. It has taught me that I don’t need to be on the streets of Paris or in the flattering light of the golden hour to take pictures. We are surrounded by pictures everywhere, even in the most common, familiar places of our daily lives. I’m attempting to show what generations of photographers before me, from Paul Strand on forwards, have shown, more successfully than I could hope to achieve; there is true beauty to be found in the most utilitarian of subjects.
I don’t intend to make concrete infrastructure my photographic life’s work. I don’t think that I could go on shooting the bridge indefinitely. I don’t presume that I, or my viewers, will find anything as deep as the meaning of life or some statement on the human condition in my boring, gray bridge images; after all, they are not a symphony – they are my scales and finger exercises. I do think that the boring gray bridge exercise is one of the most enlightening exercises I have ever engaged in and I encourage any photographer who wants to grow to try something similar.
* Find a subject easily accessible in your daily routine.
* Finding a subject with just the right amount of scope is the trick; a pencil is too restrictive, a city is too expansive.
* The subject doesn’t have to be a thing; it could be a color, an emotion, a technique.
* Shoot your subject even when you don’t want to, but not so much that you grow nauseous at the sight of it.
* If you get stuck try something new; use a different camera, lens, media or technique; go at a different time of day; force yourself to make at least 50 exposures before you can leave or restrict yourself to 6.
* Keep going until you know you’ve done everything you can with the subject but when you start to repeat yourself you will know that it is time to move on.
* An exercise is never really finished; revisit it once in a while – you may still be able to surprise yourself.