In a couple of weeks, I’m heading off to the Santa Cruz mountains to participate in a weekend yoga and writing retreat. In fact, I’m leading a session on photography as meditation, which means what I ought to be doing right now is brushing the dust off my camera and planning what I’m going to say to these folks for an hour as I lead them on a gentle hike through nature. My photography rambles have been few and far between these past two years, so I figure I need to rediscover how the process works for me before I try and
teach it share it with anyone else.*
Well, I did try. I got my camera out and snapped some photos around the house – the just starting to bloom poppies in the front flower bed, and the miniature violet shown here. Pretty thing, isn’t it? My mother complained that the shot was too close, that it didn’t capture the true diminutive beauty of the flowers, because there’s nothing to scale them against.
Personally, I’m a fan of small things made big. The flowers are beautiful in their own right, not just because of their size. I especially like these small flowers when they are exploded to full screen size – there’s something transformative about it. Of course, at its heart, every photograph is transformative.
It’s a kind of magic.
Because I shoot digitally, there is nothing that comes out of my camera that isn’t digitally manipulated at least a little bit. Standard post-processing is akin to the developing process of traditional photography – there are a lot of choices you can make along the way when you’re developing film that affect the final product (things like how long you leave the negative in the solution and what sort of paper you print on***) that don’t count as “manipulation” per se, but do affect the final product. For me, standard post-processing steps include: cropping, sharpening, and adjustments to white balance, exposure, curves and contrast. These small adjustments only refine the picture – they don’t fundamentally change it.
I don’t like to stop there, though.
I suppose it’s related to my penchant for writing fantasy, the fact that a good, crisp photo that beautifully captures an object or landscape just isn’t enough for me. Reality just isn’t enough.
I like to change things. Tweak them this way and that. Ask that most important creative question: What if…?
It’s not so much a question of making the flowers look like something they aren’t. Or making them look magical or otherworldly. It’s just a matter of making it look… different.And understanding how those differences change your experience of the photo, and the object that was photographed.
Because even small changes in tone and texture, in focus and composition – they can transform the way we feel about a photo when we see it.
So I keep trying different manipulations, looking for the feeling I want a photo to convey when I share it.
Writing is the same way.
Whether you think there are two stories, or four, or 36 or an infinite number of stories to be told, we have a metaphorical Photoshop full of tools with which to manipulate what happens to them as we put them down on paper.****
Texture and tone and focus and composition are all things that a writer uses to try and control the experience the reader will have when they encounter any given story. We don’t adjust levels – but we control pacing. We elide instead of cropping. We texture and tone not with color adjustments and layers, but with word choice.
Right now, I’m struggling with the same thing in both my writing and my photography. I know how to use the tools of manipulation – but I don’t know the experience I’m trying convey. I keep pushing buttons, trying this filter and that, undoing and redoing, again and again and again.
But what I produce feels … not quite right. More often then not I hit QUIT without bothering to save.
I’m reaching for something, I know that.
I’m hoping I’ll discover exactly what at the retreat.
* I am conflicted about the use of this Internet-born convention where you show crossed-out text right next to the “revised” version. I’ve seen it used for great comic effect, of course, but beyond that I wonder what we are trying to reveal. What does it mean that I show you my first thought alongside my edited version? If the first version wasn’t good enough, why I am I showing it to you anyway?**
** Of course, now that I’ve waxed on about it, I just want to delete the edited text and the first footnote. Except that I’ve realized that it’s actually pertinent to the topic at hand.
*** I’m guessing, really. I have no experience with film developing.
**** Or orally or visually, but let’s stick with writing here.