When In Doubt

By David Vestal Back to

After 60 years of photographing, one of the few things I’m sure of is that I don’t know how to make a photograph good. I have a fair chance of doing that whenever I photograph something I’d want to show you—something that gets my attention and pleases or stimulates me visually. I make black-and-white still photographs, so that sound, smell, hot, cold, and color don’t register in them. I enjoy the whole sensory experience, but everything that works in my pictures has to do it visually in motionless black, gray, and white tones. Paths of motion are recorded, but their record on paper doesn’t move.

When I’m photographing there’s little room in my mind for thinking. Photography is not an intellectual pursuit. For me, thinking gets in the way of seeing, and in pictures seeing is all that counts. I have to give it full attention. Fortunately, when something that I see grabs me, my thinking dims way down, though some conscious actions remain. I move around, changing my viewpoint to include what looks good and leave out what doesn’t. I focus, and when photographing moving things, I try for good timing—the time when things look best. I push the button then, or just a little before. That’s about all the shooting method I have. Printing takes longer and gives me more time to decide. For shooting I like auto-exposure, but I switch to manual when I know that the camera can’t handle it. I do such things intuitively, not by calculation. Experience has taught me to recognize what will work easily, and what probably won’t work at all. I’ve come to like trying for pictures that seem impossible. Now and then, one works.

Ignore the rules

The visible world is complex beyond our understanding, so pat rules about how to show it in pictures are too simple to deal adequately with reality. In art, rules are best ignored. Like thinking, rules get in the way of perception. If you believe that you must always break them, that itself is a rule, and just as silly as the rest. Still, if you’ve been taught rules that you’re afraid to break, obeying my anti-rule might help to set you free. The anti-rule is, Whenever you see a rule, break it immediately. Rules are clichés. A cliché is a truth or part-truth so thoroughly worn out by popular misuse that it has lost its original meaning.

Clichés are weary words, but can be used well, unlikely as that seems. One example is the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who studied painting with André Lhote, who taught nonsense about geometry that he thought pictures needed. Judging from what he said, Cartier-Bresson always believed in Lhote’s rules and conformed to them, but his eye and talent were so good that his pictures work in spite of it. That’s also true of the painter, José Clemente Orozco, who believed, briefly, in a system of design called dynamic symmetry. Orozco, too, did work that conformed to a dumb system, but his painting was good anyway. He, at least, soon saw that dynamic symmetry was useless and quit using it. When you meet a method that guarantees success in art, steer clear of it. I’m reminded of an art school dean I knew, an administrator who had no real clue about painting. He followed two infallible systems at the same time—dynamic symmetry and the French painter Jacques Maroger’s perfect palette, a hopelessly tame color-harmony scheme. The dean’s paintings were ultra-correct and duller than dishwater (a cliché that fits them exactly).

It may not surprise you that although the Zone System popularized by Fred Archer and Ansel Adams shows a clear understanding of black-and-white film exposure and development, I don’t follow its doctrine of visualizing, and I can’t do all the calculating it requires without meanwhile losing track of my picture. Some people do all that well. It works for them, but not for me. I can’t visualize worth a damn, so I have to make do with mere seeing. In short, do what works for you, and don’t do anything that doesn’t.

Seeing and feeling what’s in front of us clearly enough to photograph it well is not particularly hard, but it certainly is elusive. No step in conventional black-and-white photography is difficult, but then, doing them all correctly guarantees nothing. Many people strike all the notes correctly, but not so many play music. Note the word, “play.” When I worked for Ralph Steiner, he came up with many verbal gems. One was: “Play is hard work that you don’t have to do.” Much of what passes for art is just proficiency in going through the motions. Rather than trying to interpret what I see, I try to go straight to the seeing and feeling, and push the button before they disappear.

Catching elusive visions is largely a matter of taking long chances; of doing things we don’t know how to do. That’s how we learn technique, and what we learn it for. Learned and practiced skill frees us to act impulsively without making too many mistakes and improves our chances of getting lucky.

The importance of luck

I remember talking with André Kertész, who spoke English through a filter of French learned imperfectly from Hungarian. He made himself understood. He’d say, “I had ze chance” (shahnss), French for luck. No one I know of works more simply than he did, and very few work nearly as well. He was right to call it luck. As I’ve been saying for years, my not-entirely-frivolous def inition of talent is: Unreasonably consistent good luck. I have also said for years, You have to give luck a chance.

If you don’t push the button you will make no mistake but you will have no picture, not even a bad one. Catching elusive visions is largely a matter of being ready to see them. An old cliché in photojournalism is “ƒ/8 and be there.” The ƒ/8 is part of a state of readiness, as is being where we can see what we most need to see at the time.

So what do we need to see? As a photographer without clients, what I need to see is always near me wherever I am. When I’m ready to see what’s there, no problem. When I’m not ready, there’ll be no pictures, and that’s perfectly all right. The here and now is all we ever have, and fortunately, it keeps changing.

The simplest things, when we really see them, are fascinating. But trying to “really see” them makes it impossible. We are so busy trying that we can’t see anything without distraction. It’s better just to have the camera ready and pay attention to what’s around us, without worrying about pictures. If we don’t see anything we want to photograph, no problem. We don’t have to take a picture today. When we look at things without wishing or trying, they’re more likely to show themselves to us. It’s like rushing into the woods and peering around for animals. We won’t see them. But if we stay there quietly long enough, they will come out. Making big demands scares away everything but our anxiety. It can’t be forced.

I have a kitchen window that looks out on a back yard of unmanicured trees and ground. I seldom interfere with the yard, which lives its own life. When I have breakfast, a camera is on the table, and as the days come and go, all kinds of things happen out there, some of them wonderful. When what happens there begs to be photographed, I am happy to comply. I don’t chase after it: it is there. Most of my yard pictures are commonplace and predictable, and that’s all right with me. But now and then something wild both surprises me and looks photographically impossible. I focus on such things with special interest, and trip the shutter, and hope for luck. Most such tries fail as expected, but a few come through and give me good surprises. Accordingly, I make many prints I’m not sure about, of photos I’m far from sure of, and again, most fail. But a few come through in spite of everything. Sometimes it takes me a long time to accept them, mostly because they’re unfamiliar. But the best eventually work their way into my reluctant favor, f ighting my doubts all the way, and those I prize. They have shown me something new, and—just as surprising— I have learned to see it. For this I am grateful. It comes from taking chances.

Just being there is a sort of approachless approach that I have come to like. And this now leads me to complete the line that I’ve used for my title: When in doubt, try it out.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.