There’s a rubbish joke I sometimes use to break the ice with fellow photographers: How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb? One hundred. One to change it then 99 to say: “I could have done that.”
We all know that photography is so much more than standing there and pushing the button. But when we’re faced with a great photo, deep down it’s tough to fight back the thought that if only we’d been standing there, we’d be the ones with that great picture.
With this imprinted on my subconscious, every time I get the chance to put myself in a position to take photos inspired by the greats then I feel confident I’ll not only get a picture as good as the original masterpieces, but I’ll better them. Armed with more megapixels and lenses than any of the greats, plus the internet for spurious research, then I’m in an enviable position to get even greater shots.
With this in mind, I managed to engineer a day shooting at the Disneyland of Landscape Photography, Yosemite National Park in California. I’d swotted up on Ansel Adams and his peers, and knew all the great locations like El Capitan and Half Dome.
I just knew I’d come back with shots that Adams would have missed while reloading his massive plate camera and working out his zone exposure system. I even decided to forget the digicam with its instant-playback LCD screen and take my old Nikon F4 armed with a few rolls of Ilford’s black and white emulsion.
I’d managed to squeeze the visit into a work trip and had just one day to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles to include my Yosemite visit. Which actually meant that I got to Yosemite at about noon under a nuclear sunny day in the middle of August, and had to be on the road again out of there by 3pm if I was to make LA by midnight.
So, three hours for my attempt at beautiful landscape photography, slap bang in the middle of a scorching summer’s day, with every location walking distance from a car park. Whereas Adams lived in the park for 60 years, knew every angle and could look out of his wooden cabin every morning, take a look at the light, and say: “Nope, it’ll be better tomorrow.”
I tried my best. With massive contrast that I was never going to dodge and burn my way out of and no HDR, I decided to go for the full-on super-contrast look and whacked on a polarizer and deep red filter. The results? An over-done attempt at rescuing a few pics from a hopeless situation.
But it still hasn’t put me off. A family day trip to Paris saw me fully expectant to take stunning street reportage photos that would shame Henri Cartier-Bresson. If only I’d have spotted a bloke leaping over a puddle or smiley street urchin carrying bottles of plonk. Apart from if I’d actually snapped that, I’d have been arrested for breaking privacy laws, branded a paedofile and a terrorist.
A trip to the English seaside means I’m convinced I’ll get gaudy Brit pics to shame Martin Parr, and a wander round New York will get me street candids far better than Garry Winogrand. And a U.S. road trip is certain to snare me superior shots than William Eggleston or Robert Frank ever did. And trips to Thailand, Berlin or Venice during the carnival will no doubt see me creating amazing art. Nope.
But deep down, I’m not trying to get shots just like theirs. I’m trying to be inspired by them, hoping a little bit of their greatness rubs off, so that I get a shot that’s truly great and truly mine. So one day someone gazes at one of my photos and is so taken by it that they blurt out the immortal line. “I could have done that.” Because that’s where the journey starts.
- First published in Practical Photography magazine