I’m growing as a photographer. I can see it in my photographs. It satisfies me deeply.
But I don’t know what I think about photography.
I originally wrote “I have no idea what I’m doing” in the previous paragraph, but as I typed those words I knew they weren’t exactly true. I have learned the mechanics of using cameras, even fully manual ones. I have picked up decent composition skills. I have a growing understanding of which camera and lens to use with which film to use to get a look I want. I have learned how to show you what I see in a few kinds of subjects — old cars, for one.
Yet I lack two key things: knowledge of what makes a photograph great, and a solid understanding of what I see that most others don’t.
I know that learning what makes a photograph great means studying the work of other photographers, especially the great ones. I’ve done a little of it. I bought a book of Ansel Adams’ Polaroids some time ago and spent a lot of time in it. Time and again, Adams layered three intersecting horizontal planes. I liked the effect, and ran right out and tried it myself. I need to keep practicing it.
But to understand what I see that others don’t, the only thing I know to do is keep writing about my work. Writing about something I don’t understand almost paradoxically helps me come to understand it.
I think this is true for a lot of us. We think we believe a thing strongly, but struggle to articulate why. Or we have a whole lot of disjointed thoughts about a subject, but struggle to say exactly what we believe about it. The process of writing can help us reason through and understand what we think, and then express it clearly.
This process can also clarify and even reveal flaws in our thinking. Writing even this post has helped me come to understand something: that knowledge of what makes a photograph great is separate from understanding what I see that others don’t. When I started writing this post, I hadn’t yet separated those ideas. It took a lot of writing that I have since deleted from this post to come to understand that.
This kind of writing is hard work. For me, writing camera or film reviews or expositions of a photographic subject takes time and effort, but is not terribly hard. I do some research, I think about my experience and impressions, I organize all of this information, I write. It’s a well-worn, familiar path. It feels sure.
To write a post of original thinking like this is anything but sure, anything but easy. I write and rewrite. Sometimes a post like this one languishes in my drafts folder for weeks while I think about it. Then I’ll come back to it and write four paragraphs and later realize they’re not genuine, and cut them. Along the way, I’ll realize something important that changes my thesis and causes me to start over.
It’s a wrestling match. It consumes hours and hours. I can write five camera reviews in the time it takes me to write one post of original thinking.
But when I’m done, I’ve thought deeply about the subject and know very well what I think.
Do you find yourself to be a clear thinker, someone who can process and synthesize information and feelings in your head? Or do you think you might benefit from writing to discover what you think?