Knowing What you Like

A couple years ago I figured out a really important thing about photography. It has nothing to do with lighting, exposure, composition, photoshop technique, color-correction, or any of that stuff. Basically, it's that all that stuff is secondary to your intent and your intentionality has to be informed by some basic understanding of what you like. Sounds obvious, doesn't it? It's not, really.

RC, Allentown PA 2007
(This is a pseudo-3d image; click here for directions)

The Master of Butt-Fu

Years ago I attended a small meeting of figure and "glamour" photographers, who get together to eat pizza and talk about our hobby/profession - and was immediately aware of the serious emotional divide between the "fine art" photographers and the "glamour" photographers. I'm not just referring to the fact that one group drank chablis while the other preferred milk shakes; the fine art set waxed poetic about the beauty and divine symmetry of the human form, while the glamour photographers seemed a lot more comfortable saying things like, "Holy crap, she's got curves like a Texas highway overpass, hasn't she?" I felt that the bullshit level was already nice and high so I decided not to contribute my own, and just listened for a while. Finally, I wound up chatting with one guy who had a huge portfolio of beautiful, carefully-shot, deliciously-lit photos of - girl's butts. His work was a bit self-derivative, but it was pretty clear that I was in the presence of a guy who knew what he liked, and was shooting photos to satisfy his own eye.

Amber G, Goshen PA 2008
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The rest of the workshop I spent looking at everyone else's work with a new perspective: some photographers were trying subconsciously to ape the look of famous or noteworthy photographers, while others appeared to be thrashing back and forth between styles so quickly that they never got a chance to get good at anything in particular. "Style" is an elusive quality in photography. I took classes 12 years ago with a teacher who tried to encourage us to "find your own style" - and several of the students in the class were paralyzed into incompetence when they discovered that they had no style. Oh, my GOD! Can you imagine being a photographer with no style? So, I am thinking, the photographer at the workshop was a master of the "butt style"? No... He was just a guy who knew what he liked.

Through the Bullshit Barrier and Beyond!

Rayn, Allentown PA, 2004
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Fast-forward a decade, and you find me teaching a workshop on figure photography and studio lighting. The first exercise I hit my students with is to bring in a photo that they really like, so we can talk about how it was lit and maybe deconstruct some things about the exposure, how the image was made, and what about the image caught the viewer's eye. As you'd expect, the class brought in a really eclectic mixture of stuff; we learned right then and there that the range of human tastes in photographic art is wide and complex. So we stuck them up on the wall, ate pizza and drank beer, and talked about what we liked and didn't and why. One student thought pretty hard and announced, "I like intense contrasts - very black and white stuff." There was some discussion of different lighting, tonal ranges, color, etc. I finally got everyone's attention and said,
"Hang on a second. You're here in a figure/glamour photography workshop and no far none of you have said anything about what you like in the models, or how you like them posed, or anything about what really made you want to shoot figure/glamour. You could shoot intense contrasty photos of ruined buildings, if all you wanted was intense contrasts, right? What made you want to shoot figure/glamour?"

Perhaps the question is too "in your face" for a lot of photographers, but it's an important one. Don't sit there giving your buddies some line of pseudointellectual garbage about "perfection of line and form" because if that's all you wanted to photograph, you'd photograph sports cars, mathematical abstracts, and flowers. After a very long silence, one guy sucked it up and jokingly said, "I like to shoot pictures of models with really well-developed abs." An hour later we were talking about lighting techniques that would best emphasize muscles, or how to minimize or maximize skin detail, etc. From then on, everyone got really down to earth and the workshop took off. We got some really good photography done and I think the breaking through the bullshit barrier was the most important part of the progress we made.

Intellectual Honesty

Samantha, Morrisdale PA, 2003
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Today, I have to side with the photographer (whose name I never learned) with the amazing collection of butt photos. Not because I shoot the same photo as he did, but because I realize now that he was the most intellectually honest photographer at that get-together: he was shooting what he loved. After the workshop I taught, I was shooting a model I work with fairly often and she said something to the effect of: "you sure like this pose; you had me do this last time." Then it hit me. In fact, I shoot virtually every model, I photograph, at some point or another, in pretty much the same pose. Oh, sure, one time the light is different, another time the angle has changed, or there's a different backdrop - but the song pretty much remains the same. After the shoot was over I went and spent a while going through my image archives and found (among about 12,000 other photos I've done) that I've been pretty consistent in my 15 year-long use of the same pose.

Kim, Allentown PA 2005
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So, it seems simple, but I think that probably the most liberating thing you can do for your art is to get in touch with it. Ask yourself, "exactly what do I like?" and go get it, or create it. Life's too short to beat around the bush about it. Now, whenever I shoot a new model, I make sure I get a shot in my favorite pose.
Why the hell not? I like it.

This one's for You

Cordula, Allentown PA 2005
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I shot the photo of Cordula, above, just to decorate this article. Now here's the riddle: did I do it for myself, or for you? If you guessed "all of the above" you're right. I hope you like it; I know I do. Because I know what I like.

Since I've opened my eyes to seeing my own work in a different light, it seems that I've attracted kindred spirits. The other day, I posted a photo I did years ago of a model posing wearing feathered angel wings, and immediately got an Email from a member of the website explaining, "I love that shot you did of the model in the wings. Do you have any more of those? Or any photos of pretty girls with wings?" My immediate reaction was "Ummmm.... weirdo." but I thought and, instead, replied, "Dear sir - thanks for Emailing me. I'm an amateur photographer and have a lot of opportunity to shoot what pleases me. If you can tell me in more detail what you like perhaps I can shoot exactly that for you next time I am in the studio. Why the hell not?"

Candace, Goshen PA 2007
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Now I try to keep my approach to photography as grounded in reality as possible. If I am shooting a model, and look through the viewfinder and think, "wow, what a pair of tits!" I remember it, and, years later if I've got that photo on a wall in a gallery I'll have a beer and a slap on the back for any guy I hear muttering, "nice tits" when he looks at that picture. And if the chablis or latte drinking crowd are going on about form and line and symmetry I'll walk over and say clearly in a loud voice, "actually, I was thinking 'wow, what a pair of tits! ' when I shot this one."

Marcus J. Ranum
Orange County Airport, waiting for check-in to open, April 13, 2005 4:22AM

(Directions: Pull up the full-size image and hold your face about a foot and a half from your monitor, with your eyes level. Then cross your eyes slightly until 2 "ghost images" begins to form. Align the ghost images so they are perfectly superimposed on eachother, then tell your brain "OK, that image is 3D")