Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Question & Answer With Yehoshua Halevi - Photography & Hashgocha Pratis

A Simple Jew asks:

On your website you highlighted a quote from Ansel Adams, "Sometimes I do get to places just when God's ready to have somebody click the shutter." Indeed, photography essentially relies on hashgocha pratis; being in the right place at the right time and taking notice of something that perhaps another person would not.

As a professional photographer do you find that there is a difficulty to balance the pressure to take pictures and the flexibility to simply allow a picture to be revealed to your eyes so that you may capture it with your camera?

Yehoshua Halevi answers:

I think every artist faces two kinds of pressure. There is pressure from within, to satisfy the creative thirst to express something meaningful or aesthetically pleasing or, on rare occasion, to combine those two goals in one work. Even when I'm working on personal projects - and even when I'm shooting outdoors in nature - at times when one might expect there to be less pressure and more opportunity for those special images to reveal themselves, there is that inner drive pushing me to create. As a visual artist, I also attempt to see certain images in my mind before I capture them with my camera. So even when I'm not shooting, I'm processing ideas in my head. This inner pressure, then, never totally relents for me.

The second kind of pressure is that which is exerted externally, such as by deadlines or working under duress at a simcha or other fast-paced event.

Professionals learn over time how to cope with both these types of pressure so that it doesn't impede the creative process. One thing I've learned to do is trust my instincts. When there's no time to think about a shot, you take it based on "feel." When this fast pace sustains itself, you simply develop a rhythm and work through it. More importantly though, is the effort I have made to develop my visual skills. This is not so much seeing as it is being aware of what you are looking at and its potential to be a good photograph or to become a good photograph in the ensuing moments. This is similar to previsualization but it's more spontaneous in reaction to what is going on around you. My experience of taking thousands of photographs every year has enhanced my ability to see and respond very quickly when I begin to see a photo take shape. So, in a sense, the pressure to work quickly has forced me to hone my anticipation skills to a point where the photos actually do continue to reveal themselves. Only most of the time it's happening so fast that the job of the photographer is simply to be ready for them when they show up.

My photograph "Song of Ascent" is a perfect example of this process. I was told by the subject from the start I only had a minute or two to get my photo. So right away I felt pressured and because I recognized that this was an extraordinary opportunity, I felt additional pressure not to lose a great shot. I had been thinking about an image of this type for weeks while preparing for the trip. Although I knew in my mind's eye what I was looking for, I still needed about 10 photos to position the subject and then myself to create the point of view that makes him appear to be standing above the clouds. The moment it came together, I felt it and only needed one shot to bring it home.

So, yes, it is extremely difficult to strike this kind of balance. At times, the pressure is overwhelming and it definitely affects the quality of my work. At other times, I feed off its energy and actually create better work. In the end, I generally don't complain about the conditions and try not to always be so goal oriented. That's one of the reasons I enjoy photographing in nature. Even if I don't return home with a single satisfying image, I can still take solace in the time I was able to spend outdoors. And when I'm being paid to shoot, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to earn a living at something I love so much.


At February 27, 2008 at 5:43:00 PM EST, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Yehoshua, well put!

On the mundane side, do you find that the available camera automation out there (auto-focus, auto-exposure, other bells and whistles) interferes with your type of compositional creativity, fosters it, or some of each depending on the situation? Also, do you feel there is any point at which electronic manipulation of the image after the shot becomes a form of falsification?

At February 27, 2008 at 11:24:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Very interesting and great photo's on your site/photo blog.

At March 3, 2008 at 7:00:00 PM EST, Anonymous Yehoshua Halevi said...

Hi Bob,

I'm fond of saying that digital has done for photography what email has done for communication. There has been a serious dumbing-down to the point where most of the people I meet set their cameras on automatic and never acquire any more knowledge of how to use it. I use the opposite approach, which is to shoot all the time in manual mode. Many pros prefer to use a priority mode, either for aperture or shutter speed, but by sticking to full manual, I force myself to think through every shot. This slows me down a tiny bit, but what I lose in time I make up for, I think, in quality. I do rely on a few automated features, such as autofocus and the spot metering option, but even these I use selectively to enhance my results, and never blindly as a permanent setting.

To answer your second question, I have to fall back on the answer given by one of my mentors, the late Galen Rowell, who sometimes had to defend his use of filters to the critics who claimed he was manipulating reality. Galen's goal was always to get film to respond as closely as possible to what the human eye was seeing. Since film is much more limited than the human eye, he often used filters, such as the split-density filter, to compensate for these limitations. I call myself a photo realist, which means I don't alter the content of my images at all. On rare occasions, I may remove a piece of litter from a scene or a small, manmade object, but generally if those obstructions exist, the photograph doesn't work for me and I won't shoot it in the first place. However, this does not mean I won't work over the image after it's shot to improve contrast and color, for example. But even these corrections are done only to bring the final image closer to how my eyes perceived the original scene.

For those photographers who would call themselves artists, I don't think there is such a thing as falsification. I don't think we can accuse Van Gogh of falsifying his landscapes by adding swirls to his brushstrokes. Likewise with photographers in the digital age, where the creative possibilities are infinite. The only time you can claim something as false is when the artist claims it is untouched but has in fact manipulated the result. Otherwise, its just our own unique, personal vision, no matter how far we may take it from "reality."


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