“Do you do anything other than swan about, drinking coffee?” These words, or a variation of them, have drifted across many a conversation towards me these past few years. The first time I heard them, I was quite offended. I’d just left a fast-paced business that had just collided, like almost every other at that time, with the COVID19 pandemic. I’d had lots of things planned for my new life and, after some period of contemplation, was getting on with some of them. As time has passed, I find myself a lot busier and giving far less of a shit what people might think. The past few weeks in particular have seen personal projects, university coursework, photo shoots and getting back to my swim training after Ullswater. There have been times when I’ve just needed to detune, and I was having one of these moments when I thought about this blog post. In a session of what my wife calls “lying in bed, looking at cat videos on Instagram”, I saw a post in my feed that got me thinking about individuality and personal voice. I mainly follow photographers, artists and people that I find amusing, so I wasn’t surprised when this particular reel appeared. It was one of those Instagram vs. Reality comparisons where an aesthetically beautiful scene is shown as it would be seen on Instagram, followed by the harsh reality of trying to capture the scene. The latter is usually blighted by bad weather, something that obscures the vista, something that reveals that it’s a fake shot, and lots of people trying to take the same picture. The subject? Manhattanhenge. For those who are not familiar with this portmanteau, it’s a phenomenon where the setting sun is perfectly aligned with a number of streets in Manhattan, appearing as if framed by the towering buildings; a Stonehenge in Manhattan, if you will. It’s a rare occurrence, happening only a couple of times a year, and that in itself is enough to cause lots of excitement with tourists in the city. Quite naturally, many people who see it wish to photograph it for posterity or their socials. The reel contrasted the perfect view of the ‘henge’ with the jostling crowd of people holding their phones up to photograph it.
I’ve talked about the genre of landscape, the ideas of picturesque, beautiful and the sublime that are codes within it, in a previous post. These shots clearly tend to the picturesque, with their meanings closely associated with memory of travel and the need to inform the viewer about something they should consider seeing for themselves. Picturesque images tend to be very similar and, indeed if you do a quick Google Images search on Manhattanhenge, you get a sense of that.
Manhattanhenge (source: Google Images search)
There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, of course, but I asked myself why everyone would want to take the same photograph, rather than look for another way to represent how they feel when they look at it. I’m not going to dwell on that here, because I’m no psychologist, but I do acknowledge the dangers of settling into one way of seeing and working, so I do empathise to a point. As with any learning experience, we gain some confidence in an aspect of the skill and practice until we feel as though we’ve ‘nailed it’. While we are doing so, we might close ourselves off from other related ideas, perhaps committing to go back and look at it later. In photography, this singlemindedness can be seen all around, from the Manhattanhenge images that require careful balancing of exposure and contrast, white balance etc, to the angle of elevation in the ubiquitous selfie that takes the pounds off. We start to build rules into our workflow that kick in when we think about a landscape or portrait photograph. When they are collected together, that sense of déjà vu about the images is very real. I’m as guilty as the next photographer of doing this, I might add. I like 85mm focal length for portraits, 35 or 50mm for street work, natural light over flash, prefer a 4x5 aspect ratio for pretty much everything because that’s what my large format cameras shoot etc..etc.. What I tell myself when I realise that I’m stuck in my lane, is based on some advice I was given when I first started out. “Avoid assembling images that are either visually similar or contain symbolic or iconic context that say the signify the same thing”. This means that if there is something in the first picture that describes something about the subject, setting or event, try to avoid something similar doing the same in the next frame. I encountered an example of this a few weeks ago, when I was shooting a vintage car event near me. The Prescott Hill Climb sees cars racing against the clock from the bottom of a hillside track to, well, the top. My friends were racing their 1930s MGs (see previous post) and I was keen to make some pictures of them doing something that for me, is an unusual hobby. There is a technique in sports photography that lends itself perfectly to capturing movement in a fast-moving subject, known as ‘panning’. The photographer tracks the subject as it moves past, keeping the point of focus ‘locked’ on the interesting part of it, and shooting a relatively slow shutter speed. If the rate of the camera panning and the subject are matched, the part that is in focus appears be stationary, so the shutter speed is fast enough to make it sharp. However, the background is moving too quickly, so appears blurred.
Panning example from the Hill Climb, R Fletcher (2023)
Here’s the thing, it’s quite tricky to get right. The latest digital cameras utilise state-of-the-art focus tracking which naturally helps, but an older camera like any of my collection requires manual timing, judgement on focus and depth of field, and lots of luck. I found myself wanting some panning shots of my friends driving and, before I knew what had happened, that was the only thing I was shooting either as a practice to get the settings right, or capturing the fleeting moment where they flew past me. I’d momentarily shut out any other thoughts about context, perspectives or mixing genres that might help support the narrative of the series, and if I hadn’t realised, I would have had a collection of really boring images, even if the panning had been perfect. What does this mean? Well, for me photography is a medium with a wealth of creative possibilities and a vast range of ways of representing a subject however we want it to. There’s no doubt some truth to the adage about there being ‘no new ideas left’, but there is still the concept of individuality, which is an entirely different thing. To be individual is to take all that we’ve learned and make our own decisions on how to proceed, being inspired but not directed by others of part of some herd mentality. If we ask ourselves why we are making an image, what it means to us, what it might convey to the audience or how it might make them feel etc, we are forming an individual ‘voice’ that visually expresses an opinion, rather than simply going with the flow. In the case of the ‘henge’, there may only be a few minutes before the effect is gone, so why not go crazy and try as many different ideas as possible in the time? There may not be the next lauded artwork in that collection, but there may be something that grabs the attention of the viewer more than the traditional picturesque. If creative ideas are the eggs, better to have multiple baskets rather than just the one.