In our poemcrazy book club, we’re talking about the importance of observation and details in our writing. Maureen Doallas has been interviewing specialists in fields requiring a high level of observation through a particular sense. Last month, she spoke with birder Heidi Betts about auditory observation. Today, Maureen shares her interview with photographer Claire Burge about visual observation.
What kind of person makes the best photographer?
It all depends on your definition of “best”, but I believe that any skill can be taught, which means that anyone can learn the skill of photography; however, learning to capture artistically what is distinctly “you” requires many hours of dedicated practice and refining. It is work from “distinct voice” photographers that I find most engaging and appealing.
What or who inspired you to become a photographer?
It was a combination of the smell of developing chemicals in my father’s darkroom, the way an old film camera felt in my hands, and a very particular black-and-white photograph that I once saw.
What’s involved in teaching your eye to see creatively?
Being willing; seeing and learning again and again how to see differently from the way you do currently; studying really good art to understand what makes it good; asking questions; experimenting; avoiding poor imagery; asking for mentoring and putting into practice what is being taught to you; documenting and reflecting on your own process so that you can understand where you are getting stuck, where you are progressing easily, and where you are feeling uncomfortable; studying basic compositional rules; breaking the rules; studying light and understanding how it refracts inside a lens; studying and grasping exposure, white balance, film sensitivity to light (ISO), aperture, and shutter speed; and many, many more things that each individual experiences along the way.
What’s your most pronounced characteristic as a photographer?
I somehow manage to capture detail that other people don’t see.
When composing a photo, what do you tend to see that others might miss?
Textures, details, and angles.
What do you learn from looking at other photographers’ work?
I am most interested in how other photographers use light to compose their images.
How do you enhance your visual perception skills?
I read poetry. Seriously! Poetry has taught me the power of being succinct.
What distinguishes a good photograph from one that’s outstanding?
Taking light and using it as a tool within an image to achieve something, rather than just capturing the light as it is.
The cliché is that a picture’s worth a thousand words. How is a photograph by you like a poem? Like a story?
Only a viewer of an image can decide if that image tells a story in a poetic way.
What words do you visualize when you’re taking a photo?
[My visualization] is different for every frame I see through my viewfinder. If it isn’t, I know I need to put the camera down.
What words do others use to describe your photographs?
“Light”, “evocative”, “thought-provoking”, and “real” were the exact answers I got when I asked my blog readers this question. [To read Claire’s post about her survey of her readers, go here.]
What do the line, texture, pattern, or color in an image of yours tell us about you the photographer?
The inside is what I want to get to. Always.
What has been your greatest photographic challenge? Were you successful in meeting the challenge? Why or why not?
Currently, I am in the midst of learning how to transition from predominantly artistic shooting to moving into high-end editorial shooting. In other words, I am learning the business of photography and what it means to generate an income from photography. It is hard but I am enjoying the process. It is stretching me.
What mistakes do even the best photographers make?
A mistake I see photographers repeat over and over is shooting for editorial requirements rather than remaining true to their authentic voice—the very reason the client hired in the first place. Balancing artistic voice and client need is an ongoing challenge that all artists need to think about if they are in the business of generating an income from their art.
What do your own photographic mistakes teach you?
My most common mistake is going into auto-pilot mode and just shooting. I need to stop myself and go back to planning and actively thinking about each frame.
If you could photograph anything anywhere in the world, what would it be, and why?
My life goal is to set up an educational fund for children in South Africa [that would allow me to] work with carefully selected individuals to mentor them through school and university. I would like to photographically document these lives over a period of years.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from another photographer? From a non-photographer?
From another photographer: “The business of photography is hard, and you need to learn how to make art of that, too.”
From a non-photographer: “Capture what you love.” It sounds simple but it takes time to figure out what you love.
If you were to teach a class of poets how to improve how they see, what would you advise? What could they learn from observing you?
Because I am a visual person and because most of my workday consists of online time, I am very aware of how people present themselves visually and digitally. It has always been a remarkable fact that writers, poets, authors, and other word artists tend to neglect their visual appearance, instead depending on their words to carry them. I am of the opinion that it is no longer okay to do this. The world is becoming increasingly visual. You need to make a visual impression if you want to make any impression.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In April we’re exploring the theme Dragons and Creatures.
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