Articles Tagged: visual literacy

Beyond Pretty: The evolution of my visual literacy

When I joined the staff at Dallas Center for Photography in December 2015, I’d been shooting regularly for about 5 years. Mostly of my dogs and later my child and occasionally for friends with poor vision and cheap taste in photography. I enjoyed taking pictures. I had a gut instinct as to what I thought looked good but I would never classify myself as a “photographer” or claim to have any real knowledge of the subject.

I also had no shame.

I spent a lot of time looking at pictures but found myself lacking the ability to describe what I liked about them. They’re just…pretty! I could spend hours drooling over Dog Breath Photography’s portfolio. And how fun are these images from Loose Leashes?! (I told you I loved dog photography!) After my daughter was born I gravitated towards mommy bloggers who shared their parenting experience with both candid and posed visuals.

But as I immersed myself in the photographic world that DCP opened up to me, something unexpected happened. Instead of being inspired by all of these incredibly creative people, I was confused and insecure. I put my camera down for almost 6 months.

I was seeing images from both professional and beginner photographers that had real depth. My photo of my daughter looked nothing like the stunning portraits that came out of our natural light classes. I was also being exposed to genres of photography that I never really paid much attention. When I accompanied the street photography workshop and tried to capture some street scenes, I didn’t know what the hell to focus on. I felt like I was constantly failing.

After trying for 20 minutes on Halloween to get a pretty picture of Hannah in her costume, this is what I got. I was disappointed because you can’t see her face and considered the whole shoot a failure. When I showed it to Peter he completely disagreed. He explained that it’s strong because it captured her personality perfectly and was a moment any parent could relate to.

By the end of 2016 I had two key realizations. The first was when I realized what’s been holding me back from truly appreciating some photos: my ego and its default reaction of judging. When I am looking at a photograph displayed on a gallery wall my brain wants to quickly dismiss it as “there’s nothing special about that” and not really SEE the picture. But if I’ll turn that voice off for a second, I’ll notice there is a lot more to that photo. Sometimes it’s the interesting compositional elements or it’s capturing a unique experience that only the photographer had access to at that moment in time. As Peter once told me, comparison is the killer of creativity.

Not all intimate family portraits have to be taken outside during golden hour.

My next important discovery was realizing I was developing a vocabulary to describe the photos I was seeing. Sitting in on National Geographic photographer Sam Abell’s image critique gave me my first words to describe how a strong image comes together. I’ve been lucky enough to spend many hours discussing and dissecting photography with Peter. So now instead of a photo just being pretty, I appreciate the lighting, the defined spaces of the subjects or the photographer’s ability to capture the decisive moment in that event.

10 minutes into naptime.

I also started exploring photojournalistic style photography with the work of photographers such as Ed Kashi and Dorothea Lange. I’ve been moved to tears more times looking at Dorothea’s photos of migrant farm families and Japanese internment camps than in the entire year I had the movie E.T. on constant repeat. These photos are far from pretty. They are intense, emotional and necessary.

Fast forward another few months and I’m still frozen. I’m now intimidated by these photojournalists being able to capture impeccably composed photos amidst chaos and disaster and I still can’t figure out where to point my camera. And then Dorothea spoke to me. OK, she spoke to everyone watching that American Masters episode on PBS but it truly resonated with me.

In her early 20’s Dorothea was a successful and busy portrait photographer in San Francisco. When the Great Depression began to take hold of our country, soup lines developed in the streets below her studio. Looking down at this scene one day she said “I will set myself a big problem. I will go there, I will photograph this thing, I will come back, and develop it. I will print it, and I will mount it and I will put it on the wall, all in twenty-four hours. I will do this, to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning.”

Even during our daily rituals I’m learning to see the details.

So that’s what I’ll do. I will look outside my window and photograph what I see. With constraints from family life, daily commitments and social anxieties, I won’t be traveling to exotic places or immersing myself in the important movements of our current society. But there are still pictures to be taken from my role as a mother, my activities at DCP and every place I may stop in between. I will take these photos, I will process them and although most will not get printed and mounted, I will likely post them on Instagram which is basically the modern equivalent but with a lot less chemicals. I will do this, to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning. I’ll settle for a spark.

I’ll even allow myself to capture the un-pretty.