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:

I've told the story of this priest at Tozen-in in northern Tohoku in this issue of Kokoro. What I've never told is the story of salvaging the awful photograph I made.

What I don't like in the picture:

What, you don't think the Mickey Mouse ears from the lights in the background of the original (above) are cute? Don't they remind you of My Favorite Martian?

What I learned:

This encounter in Japan was one of the hightlight of the trip. Unfortunately, my poorly executed photograph made telling this story an impossibility. That is, until I could scan the negative and do some intricately detailed Photoshop work to clean up the background — and eliminate the Mickey Mouse ears.

Never throw away your old negatives nor even your bad digital images. You never know when technology will evolve enough to allow you to salvage a bad image. I love this portrait — post Photoshop editing, that is.

And don't forget that no one cares what problems you needed to resolve on your way to the final photograph. In fact, you shouldn't even care. Hours of cleanup processing is nothing if you can get the story told and the image accomplishes what you intended.