Brooks Jensen Arts

Every Picture Is a Compromise

Lessons from the Also-rans

Most photography websites show the photographer's very best work. Wonderful. But that's not the full story of a creative life. If we want to learn, we'd better pay attention to the images that aren't "greatest hits" and see what lessons they have to offer. Every picture is a compromise — the sum of its parts, optical, technical, visual, emotional, and even cosmic – well, maybe not cosmic, but sometimes spiritual. Success on all fronts is rare. It's ok to learn from those that are not our best.

This is a series about my also-rans, some of which I've been able to improve at bit (i.e., "best effort"), none of which I would consider my best. With each there are lessons worth sharing, so I will.

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Failures from Japan, 1990

This week (mostly for my own amusement), I'll discuss images from a trip to rural northern Japan in 1990 with David Grant Best. Back in the film days — when things could really go wrong and you wouldn't know it until long after the trip was over.

What I saw that I liked:

Again from that first trip to Japan in 1990, shooting with my 2¼x3¼ monorail film camera. What's not to like in a friendly game amongst the village elders?

What I don't like in the picture:

Up to this point in my photographic career, I mostly photographed in the landscape. The exception was the work I'd done in garages and machine shops. Still, traveling in Japan I was mostly photographing places, not people. Until this moment …

What I learned:

My first composition of this croquet match was the one above — again, things rather than people. But a break came in the game and I asked in my crude Japanese if it was ok for me to photograph there, not wanting to intrude. They said yes and — to my surprise — all immediately lined up for a group portrait. I couldn't say to them that I was not a people photographer, so I set up an made the photograph. As I walked away some time later, I distinctly remember thinking that the group portrait was the best thing I'd yet done in Japan. From that moment forward, I put a lot more energy into photographing people — even though it put me far outside my comfort zone.

2nd Chances: What I might try next

This was a decade or more before I started thinking in terms of project-oriented photography. I wish I had more images from that morning. Could have been a great Seeing in SIXES type project.