Monday, April 24, 2006

Learning How To See

Just thought I'd share a quote that someone sent me this morning.

Edward Steichen, who eventually became one of the world's most renowned photographers, almost gave up on the day he shot his first pictures. At 16, young Steichen bought a camera and took 50 photos. Only one turned out - - a portrait of his sister at the piano. Edward's father thought that was a poor showing. But his mother insisted that the photograph of his sister was so beautiful that it more than compensated for 49 failures. Her encouragement convinced the youngster to stick with his new hobby. He stayed with it for the rest of his life, but it had been a close call. What tipped the scales? The vision to spot excellence in the midst of a lot of failure.

— Bits & Pieces, February 4, 1993

What made Steichen great (as well as lot of other great photographers), was their ability to see. Maybe even more important than just their mastery of technical skills, or their way with people and subjects, or their work ethic. Sam Abell once told me this was the thing that set great photographers and photojournalists apart from good ones: their ability to watch, see, and compose with their eyes, observing beautiful moments in the middle of chaos before ever lifting a camera to their eyes. Abell always composed his photographs in layers, from back to front. He'd find his background, sometimes a foreground as well, and then he'd wait for the moment to arrive. Which made for very distinct photographs.

Our lives are always filled with failure. It's been, and is always going to be, a constant. The key to success is spotting excellence in the space between the failures and capitalizing on those moments.

Was it Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) in the movie Philadelphia who said: "Fail. Fail Again. Fail Better." ???

What's a roll of film for a great photographer but 32 or 33 exercises in failure, highlighted by 4 or 5 moments of brilliance?