Ibarionex Perello: When I began teaching photography, a photographer noted that I described my process as making rather than taking photographs. It had never been a conscious thing, but rather a natural assessment of how I created my photographs.
For me making photographs involves active seeing and making conscious choices. Taking photographs is nothing more than raising a camera and pressing a button. The latter was the way that I wielded a camera when I first began as a photographer. The results were inconsistent and uneven, with a good image being more the result of luck rather than skill and talent.
But as I learned more about light and shadow, line and shape, color and gesture, not only did my photographs improve but also my ability to see with a creative eye. I no longer hoped for some chance encounter with an interesting character or a dramatic moment. Instead, I observed the world with an eye for how it would translate into an effective photograph.
I discovered that it was the way that I see and respond to what I see that was the most valuable tool that I had as a photographer. As much as I might obsess about cameras and lenses, it was what happened in my own head that made the difference between success and failure.
When I look at my early images, I can see that they had great potential. Even then I can see that I was drawn to elements of color and line and gesture. However, I didn’t have an understanding of how all of those elements could be made to play off of each other. Or more importantly, how some of those elements could diminish the impact of the photograph.
I was often so focused on my main subject that I didn’t consider how distractions in the background or poor lighting or bad timing ruined a shot. I could sense that there was something wrong with the photographs, but I lacked the understanding and the vocabulary to determine that for myself. The result was frequently repeated frustration with not being able to create photographs that compared to those photographers I loved and admired.
My frustration grew to such a degree that for a time, I stowed away all my camera equipment into a closet, thinking that I would never make another photograph again. That period lasted for almost a year when I finally thought better of it. Yet, I knew that I would have to do something different if I were to have any hope that my photography would produce different results.
For months, I looked through the many photographic monographs in my collection with a truly critical eye. I wasn’t just looking at these images for pleasure. I was diving in deep into the photographs of Gordon Parks, Mary Ellen Mark, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Eli Reed, Jay Maisel, Ernst Haas, Joel Meyerowitz, Roy DeCarava and dozens more.
I sat in my living room for hours with their books in my lap, lingering on images that I had looked at countless times before. But now I was determined to understand why those images spoke to me. I wanted to crack the secret of what made so many of their images so wonderful and so different from what I was producing.
The first breakthrough came when I recognized the ways these photographers saw and used light, especially available light. They were not just fixated on their subject to the exclusion of everything else in the frame. They instead were revealing the subject by being purposeful with how they used light and shadow to control the viewer’s experience of their photographs.
I had often heard about the importance of light, but it wasn’t until that moment that it registered in a way that I felt could apply to my own image making.
That began a journey for me where I began to see the beauty and complexity of light and shadow. That segued into recognizing the role of line and shape and color and finally gesture. I came to understand why the images of these great photographers worked so well. More importantly, I came to understand what was lacking from my own.
Progress came slowly, but I worked hard to develop my personal way of seeing. Countless hours of making and evaluating photographs helped me to hone my skills and to achieve a consistency that I had always hoped for.
Part of that involved mimicking the photographers that I admired. By trying to replicate some of their photographs, I began to have an understanding and a great appreciation for the challenges that had to be surmounted in order to produce an exceptional photograph.
But I wasn’t satisfied to simply be a second copy of my favorite photographers. Instead, I tried to apply what I had learned to my own personal way of seeing. Each lesson and each influence resulted in subtle shifts in my perception and technique, some of which I retained while others I discarded.
This resulted in some great successes, but also countless failures. But I saw them all equally because I understood that I came to learn as much from my failures as I did from my successes.
My latest book, Making Photographs: Developing a Visual Workflow, called on me to carefully examine how I see and make photographs. It was necessary in order for me to be able to share with others skills and techniques that I found invaluable. Most importantly, it provided me with a way of sharing my own journey in a way that could be beneficial for photographers who were struggling in the same way I was so many decades ago.
Learning to see was instrumental in me transitioning from taking photographs to making photographs. And though I still have much to learn and experience, I feel every confidence that I walking the right path towards my goal and becoming the best photographer I am capable of being.
Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, writer, and educator. He is also the producer and host of The Candid Frame photography podcast (thecandidframe.com) which for the past 12 years has featured in-depth conversations with some of the world’s best established and emerging photographers. He is the author several books including the best selling Chasing the Light: Improving Your Photography with Available Light. His latest book: Making Photographs: Develop a Personal Visual Workflow is available now.
You can purchase Making Photographs with a special 40% discount using the promo code PERELLO40 which visiting the Rocky Nook website.