April 12, 2014

Vision First, Skills Second

Last weekend my wife and I stopped at a garage sale that was hosted by three very old ladies who were selling some very old things (both the ladies and their items were “vintage”).

Amongst their knick knacks I spotted a leather camera bag with a post-it note that said “make offer.” I didn’t need a bag but decided to look inside.

What I saw inside made my heart flutter! It was an old 1950’s Kodak Pony camera, identical to one that I had owned as a boy.

Kodak Pony 828 

I went over to the three women and asked “who should I make an offer to?” and the two pointed to the one in the middle. I had no idea how much the camera was worth, but I wanted it and so I said “will you take $20?” 

Call 911! I thought the woman was going to have a heart attack right then and there, it was clear that she would’ve taken much less for it. But the truth is I would’ve paid a lot more because it brought back a particular childhood memory:

I was 14 years old and I had purchased a used camera just like this from Casey’s camera in Rochester, New York. I quickly put it to use on a still life that I had assembled on my mothers prized dining room table, using two eggs and a goblet.

1968 Egg in Glass 

I knew what I wanted the image to look like, but there was a problem because the camera wouldn’t focus close enough. So I disassembled the lens and removed the focusing stop so that the camera would now focus very close, but how would I focus it?  It was never intended to focus like this and so I took a piece of ground glass, put it on the film plane and manually focused it like a view camera. I then loaded the film back into the camera and created this image. 

I jokingly tell people that “Egg in Glass” was my first fine art image, and as I have reflected on this experience from some 45 years ago, I’ve come to appreciate what this image represents to me.

It is important because I had exhibited a simple Vision and then sought the technical skills I needed to pull it off. As I look back on my photographic life, that’s how a great many of my images have come about: I had the Vision first and then developed the second.

Let me give another example:

2004-11-1 Skeleton Final 4-24-2009 750 

This is “Skeleton” and this is exactly how I found these bones.

Well, not exactly, here’s how the camera saw the scene:

2004-11-1 Skeleton BEFORE WEB 750 

When I stood over those bones that autumn day, I didn’t see the image the way my camera saw it, but rather the way that my Vision saw it.  I knew exactly how I wanted this image to look: I wanted those bones to really stand out against dark leaves.

But the problem was that I didn’t know how I was going to do this, I had just converted to digital and I didn’t know how to use PhotoShop. So I just jumped in and starting trying things, and in the process I learned how to dodge and burn with a tablet. The Vision came first and the skills were developed as needed.

Here’s another image where I had to develop the skills on the run:

2004-12-20 Old Car Interior -  Final 2-27-2006 750 

This is “Old Car Interior.”  When I stuck my head in the back window of that car and looked at that wonderful old dash, I knew how I wanted it to look.  But again I was faced with a technical challenge that I had no experience with: the interior was very dark and flat while the exterior was very bright and contrasty.

The dynamic range in this image would have been a challenge with film, but it was impossible with digital. I didn’t know how to go about fixing this and so I just tried something.

Here’s the original shot:

2004-12-20 Old Car Interior BEFORE small

I exposed one image for the interior and one for the exterior.  I then processed each one separately, cut out the window from the exterior shot and pasted it into the interior image.

Might there be better ways to have created this image?  Probably, but all I care about is that it worked and I was able to create the image that I had imagined.

A final example:

Windmill in Moonlight AFTER

This is “Windmill in Moonlight” and this is how everyone knows this image.

But this is how the camera recorded this night scene:

Windmill in Moonlight BEFORE

When I saw this scene on that cold winter night in Nebraska, I was inspired and excited with its potential! But when I saw the RAW image, I had doubts that I could manipulate it to match my Vision. I made several attempts and failed,  but I didn’t give up because I so believed that this could be a great image.

I know that my philosophy of “Vision first, skills second” runs contrary to common wisdom. There are many who believe that skills must come before the vision can be executed.

I respectfully disagree.  Everything in my photographic life (both the good and the bad) has reinforced my belief in Vision first.

When skills comes first, then images are limited by what you can do. But when Vision  comes first, then you are only limited by your imagination and determination.


P.S. I researched the price on that Pony 828 camera and you can buy them all day long on eBay for $10. That old lady got a great deal…but so did I!

16 thoughts on “Vision First, Skills Second

  1. To everyone who tried to leave a comment: Sorry! We were having terrible spam problems and so we tried something new, which blocked people from leaving a comment.

    We have turned that off and I “think” you should now be able to leave a comment.

  2. Your “vision first, skills second” approach is the perfect priority for working with Photoshop. Clearly it seems that essentially “anything” is possible with the techniques and tools available in the software. But why would you try to learn every conceivable way (or even multiple ways) of doing anything before you needed them? That approach could take a lifetime when all you need are basics combined with a means of searching for a new technique when you need it to fulfill a vision or solve a problem constraining a vision. And I couldn’t possibly remember how to do things I’ve already tried or learned in Photoshop without a number of printed sheets that I have prepared so I don’t have to remember every technique I’ve discovered, learned or applied when I might need it again. Frankly, the basics usually solve my vision needs anyway!

  3. Once again, you have done a great job sharing about your art. I appreciate that. In the digital age, much of photography has become engineering for engineering’s sake, not for art’s sake. Many people are “digital guru’s”, but lack the vision for the final image. Their photos are merely subject matter for their computer art. That said, I can’t knock their joy. It is right for them. However, that is what separates their pictures from your art. The image is in the hear of it all.
    I look forward to speaking again soon.

  4. “Windmill in Moonlight” is one of my favorites and I always wondered what the befoe and after looked like, thanks for sharing!

    Maybe not directly relevant to your point, but often I’ll specifically target captures to work on where I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull off the final image I’ve visualized. It feels “less pressure” than working on images where the capture is great and the self-expectation is that I ought to pull off the final. Many times I fail, but often I succeed more than I expected, and I push boundaries and learn new things along the way.

  5. That first image confirms for me the notion that some folks have “it” and some do not (that would be me). Age 14!!!!! Those that don’t can certainly improve both their artistic and technical skills through diligence and persistence but the “creative gene” is simply more advanced in some than in others. A wonderful story, lesson and motivational post – thanks.

  6. Thanks Roger, but you’d be amazed that for many years I felt that I had no creative ability.

    I now believe that we are all born with creative ability, and while some nurture it, many of us bury it under a lot of baggage.

    I was fortunate to rediscover it.

  7. I recall instances from my childhood that a scene just froze me in place. Unlike you however I completely lacked the determination to do something about it; that process “only” took a few decades. I second Roger’s sentiments. Whatever gene &/or psyche drove you, especially at a young age, is your gift & blessing.

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