(Photo by Scott Holstein)
“Hi, my name is Joe, and I make mistakes.”
I always say it. In Webster’s, next to photographer, it says “he or she who makes mistakes constantly.” Let’s face it, we are the most fallible of creatures, and I’m not saying that to knock us down. Lord knows, your average photog does enough self flagellation to qualify for a 13th century monastic order. (Chant after me, and Monty Python. “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.” Thwack!)
No, mistakes are just with us, that’s the deal. I could wax on/wax off poetically about how we make mistakes because we are supposed to embrace the world with the eyes of a child: So new! So fresh! (Say the last with Michael Jackson’s voice.) But that could easily be construed to be just so much smarmy bullshit. I think we just plunge ahead, as the English say, bash on regardless, and mistakes occur. I make tons of ’em on location. Zig when you should zag. Commit to the wrong angle, and get back to the studio and look at a bunch of images that might as well have “What was I thinking?” embedded right there in the EXIF data.
I can’t tell you how many times on a job I’ve looked at a Polaroid, or an image on my laptop, and shook my head in dismay and thought it was a great thing I wasn’t doing brain surgery cause there just went the piano lessons and the gift of speech. (These are inside thoughts, of course, cause usually the client is looking over your shoulder and you have to be happy happy joy joy. “Oh yes, it is going to be fine! We just have to tweak the lighting a little! Just soften the tones, you know, because we’re being forced to shoot the boss man right after he got hammered at lunch and now he looks like a stoplight with a neck tie, but that can be fixed in post and if we move the light this way a bit you won’t even see that stylish plaid shirt!”)
[More after the jump]
Also, perhaps because there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to do most pictures, it’s really tough to sort out what exactly is or isn’t a mistake. There’s no road map, or directory, just a gut feel, like, “Whoa, I let down the side today,” or, “I coulda done that better.” Unlike a lab experiment where you might have precise mixes of ingredients, and an exact timetable of how to mix them, there’s lots of things out of your control as a shooter. It’s frustrating. That’s when I remember the lesson of the Japanese potters. The great masters of that craft know that they can only control about 85% of the process of firing one of their creations in the kiln. For the rest, the kiln will just do what it will do, depending on temperature, type and dryness of the wood, etc. At the end, if it has imparted imperfections or unexpected gifts, the potters quite literally thank the kiln.
So maybe the location, or the subject, is our kiln. We can only get it so far, and then we just have to roll. And it’s always different, so we can’t pull out the blueprint from that day when everything went so well (remember that one?) and apply it to today. We just have to embrace our mistakes, and get comfortable with them. I urge folks to take them out to dinner, sit down and have a chat. If you listen to them, they will show you the way. They are the path to better pictures.
I talk about mistakes in The Moment It Clicks a bit (now back in stock). There are some mistakes in the pictures that have been pointed out to me by some readers. There’s a piece of me (my reflection) in the picture of the Lopez family kitchen on page 140. That one I’m aware of. I had shot most of the take from camera right, not looking through the finder, using a cable, staying out of the mirror. Then things got a bit animated at chez Lopez, and I was shouting and laughing with them, getting the energy meter to spike a bit, and I thought, hang the reflection. I put my eye in the camera and started rocking and rolling. So I’m in there with the slightly wacky and talented Lopez’s. Always brings a smile to my face.
So there it is. I fuck up. More than occasionally. I can maybe issue a statement. “After many years of hearing…’We have no budget for this shoot’….as the first words spoken in most conversations with a client about a potential assignment, I began to take painkillers, which drastically affected my judgment and led to the making of many mistakes on location. My stays at mistake rehab have proved fruitless. I urge the public to respect my privacy while I go through this terrible period (my entire career) and I hope to communicate again after healing conversations with my therapist, my rep, my colorist and my personal bhagwan.”
Mentioned in this post:
– Monty Python and the Holy Grail (That’s no ordinary rabbit!)