New England Aquarium Field Trip

Shooting in the aquarium gave me a lot of freedom in a funny way. I only had my Voigtlander Bessa-R rangefinder camera, and 160 speed color film. It was quite dark in the aquarium, so most of the time my shutter speed was around 1/8 of a second. Since I didn’t have a tripod, and the fish swam quickly, I knew that it was an exercise in “feeling out the instant.”

In other words, without the ability to be precise about anything technical, I was free to feel, and sense the colors, contrasts, swirls, motions, and textures instead. And while this led to blurriness in some cases, I noticed even that added to a feeling of otherworldly-ness.

I had emotional reactions to the visual experience of certain kinds of fish – almost as if responding to the expressions on their faces. For instance, the eel seemed suspicious and frightening. In the turquoise-toned image of the fish, he seemed to me like a ghost. The colors had an emotional impact, too. The very bright, multi-colored frame felt very happy, and reminded me of watching Finding Nemo. (There was even a fish that looked like Dori!)

The stingray seemed wonderfully elegant, and much more like a bird than a sea creature. But with the grid of the giant tank as a backdrop, that elegance became ironic, and maybe even a little sad. Whether or not it is possible that any of this emotional content was registering as I depressed the shutter I’m not sure – as I mentioned, the fish moved very fast – but in looking at the moments I managed to capture, it seems arguable that it was.

I took a class with photo editor/teacher Seth Greenwald, who would insist that our human instinct always deserved credit – that we are able to sense something in the moment we are observing, and as a photographer one learns to let that moment express itself on film by hitting the shutter at exactly the moment we sense it.

Seth would ask of a shot, “How did you do this?” And the shooter would reply, “I don’t know, I was standing there, and this just happened.” And Seth would said, “No! It didn’t ‘just happen.’ You were present. You were observing something.”

He emphasized that it wasn’t the tool, format, or even the skills we used that made an image work. It was something else, a sixth sense about a moment, an ability to tune in to something, an ability to press the shutter at that precise moment.

Of course, I have learned a great deal about tools to make the exposure and tonal quality of an image meet professional standards, and completely honor the value in that. But I have always felt strongly that the mastery of tools and skills should always be in service of something. There should always be a strong idea, emotion,concept, or even simply information to convey. And there should be a lot of integrity about what needs to be conveyed being held by the person trying to convey it – the photographer.

At the aquarium, with one simple tool, with practically no options, I was able to really tune in to the integrity of the subject. It wasn’t possible for me to be distracted by trying different lenses or exposures. I had only 2 rolls of film. There was no art director, there was nothing to sell. Just this sea life, living.

We say that sea life “swims,” I suppose. But there was so much subtle movement, with any of these creatures, involved in its propelling forward or just moving around. It was easy to get drawn in to their undulations, and sense their life-force. And sensing and honoring their existence made wonder if what we label “swim,” is nuanced enough to describe their lovely aquatic lives.

In closing, here are the jellyfish shots I’ve chosen to blow up for my wall:

Inspiring lecture with Albert Watson

As part of the PhotoPlus Expo, I attended a lecture with legendary photographer Albert Watson, and had the opportunity to view some his personal favorite work. It was quite moving to hear him speak – he is famous for shooting over 250 covers for Vogue magazine, yet as down-to-earth as can be (although not unaided by the ever-charming Scottish accent).

One thing he said that reminded me so much of what is important was, “If you’re a photographer, you’re lucky.” It is so easy to get wrapped up in the daily challenges of one’s vocation, and forget about finding the joy and love you have for it in your regular experiences. Here was a well-accomplished, world-renowned artist appreciating his own good fortune. Who am I to behave differently?

He also spoke about doing assignments that one is not thrilled with, saying “No matter what the assignment, you don’t get the day back.” In other words, yes, sometimes you will be assigned to do what you consider to be unimportant, uninspiring, or just plain annoying. But it is your day, your life, your art, and you owe it to yourself to try to make something that pleases you – to squeeze it in additionally to or, if you can manage, within the assignment. If one wants to get great, one ought to use every opportunity possible. And, in any case, one might as well enjoy the day!

In addition to being inspired by his words, I bought his latest book (which he signed for me), as a follow-up lesson to the slide show presentation during the lecture. Not surprisingly, given my specialty, I was fond of the reportage style images he did in China, as well as the more cinematic black-and-white editorial spreads. But overall, what struck me as much as the craftsmanship in his work, was the sense of “idea.” There is a palpable sense in his work of having a very specific idea to convey, and the images are charged with authenticity. His subject matter varies greatly, as does the concept behind his work, so it is hard to speak about it more specifically. But the consistency in the quality of his prints and the uniqueness of the ideas he created was flawless.

The one specific thing I will say is that the double-exposure he created of Mick Jagger’s and a leopard’s face is stroke of genius, both in its motivation, and in its reliance (as all photography has this reliance to some extent) on the absolute uncertainty of the luck of things aligning in the moment the shutter is released. (In this case, twice.)

I find great value in hearing great artists speak about their work. Just in speaking about the way things come together, a lot is revealed about their nature, and it is interesting to try to see glimpses of that nature in the work. It inspires me to trust in my own nature, and to let my work become a greater vehicle for that nature.

What this is all about.

Friday night, I set my alarm to catch an early train from New York to Boston. Before it went off on Saturday, I woke from a dream in which I was visiting my high school secretary to tell her I was going to grad school. My alarm started beeping, and I thought, “I don’t want to go to grad school. Do I?”

I am a photographer, and would like to consider myself a fine artist. However, I am more like a small business owner who knows how to market her creativity. Pursuing an MFA would certainly give me the opportunity to make my craft and artistry the real priority. But I love working, and am not sure I feel inclined to re-immerse in academia, being 7 years pleasantly removed from my undergraduate degree in film. After all, a working editorial photographer in New York City is not accustomed to subsisting on ramen noodles. But, film major or not, a liberal arts degree does not equal having been through art school, and I want to know the joys of playing with clay, canvases, graphic design software, and obsessively contemplating the great artists who came and went before me.

After weighing the pro’s and con’s, I decided to found the University of Sarah, and give myself my own MFA education. This way, I will commit to educating myself, without having to quit working and sequester myself to any place with quadrangles and cafeteria food. I have created this blog to document the process, and welcome – as in the discussion forum of a classroom – thoughts, feedback, and responses to any and all steps in this process.