R. Michael Walker – Melissa Undressing, Red River Gorge, KY (1979)
Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class in any discipline has–by now–been thoroughly debunked. Simply from that standpoint of stifling elitism, I consider the kibosh that’s been put on this a tender mercy. Except…
I don’t think the notion that it takes time to hone your craft is actually–in any way–bad advice. If a young photographer/image maker came to me and asked what advice I have for them as far as achieving their dream, my response would probably be inline with what I was told when I first started making photos: lock yourself in your room and read until your eyes burn and don’t touch a camera for five years.
Or, that’s how I would’ve put it until recently. I think there’s a balance between doing and fueling the doing. And the 10,000 hours probably have less to do with conditioning and more to do with forcing you into a give and take relationship with your craft where you realize that sometimes you do it when you don’t feel like it and sometimes doing it when you don’t feel like it is detrimental to the doing. It’s only through trial and error that you figure it out.
Also, fueling your doing is less fulfilling but it’s easier to learn things that may take you much longer to address in your own work.
For example: the above image has crystallized for me a number of things I’ve been grappling with in my own work.
Long story, Cliff’s Notes ™ version–it’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve begun to see photos as dimensional. And by that I mean more than just the separation between foreground, mid-ground and background. It’s more than a little like Lotte Reinger’s multiplane camera–except expanding so the entire space in the frame is represented by distinct planes.
The experience of seeing space as constructed of layers has actually slowly shifted the way I think about composition. It’s still at a point where I’m not so great at articulate it but there’s a very clear feeling of it.
My notion of seeing space as layers of planes relates to depth of field. And generally depth of field has very proscribed uses. The majority of photographers/images makers think of bokeh as a means of emphasizing the subject while still conveying a sense of the subject in space without all the decontextualization that comes from staging things in a studio space. (In fact, it’s arguable that the quality of bokeh is usual measured across cameras and lenses by giving consideration to the bokeh offered by the fastest lenses available in an 85mm–or equivalent–focal length.)
(As a brief digression: if you’ve read anything written by folks who have worked as cinematographers for several decades, you’ll hear them talk about how different lenses are best suited for shots of a particular scale. I’m increasingly realizing that there is actually a good bit of truth to those claims.)
But the point is there’s a tendency to either go for the shallowest depth of field possible–the reason why fast 85mm lenses are considered the bokeh gold standard because they tend to support the shallowest DoF; or, for deep focus a la Group F/64 or Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane.
In my own work, I favor a shallower depth of field but as I’m frequently working in medium or specialty formats, I’m limited by lenses that by and large are only considered fast in large format.
Really, your DoF should be used as a tool to help the viewer know how to read the frame you’re presenting them. The photo above for example: was most likely faster film shot in low-ish light with a mid-range aperture. Note how all the foreground is in focus and the focus starts to go soft at the rear of the tree directly behind Melissa. Note how this forms a compositional wedge from the lower corners through Melissa to the tree. The subject is pulled forward whereas the forest is pushed backwards. (Yes, digital devotees, you can capture your images in raw with everything in focus and then selectively unsharpen in post but it’s never going to look as organic as the above.)
Point is: I don’t think I’ve ever seen DoF used to quite this effect and I like it rather a lot.