On Process, Part 1

Feb 24th 2010: Thoughts

I will tell you about my carne experience yesterday some other time. Just know it was good. Very good. Very, very good. Right now I want to take a few minutes to start a short series on the photographic creative process. My process to be precise. It’s all about me on this blog. This came in part from a discussion I had a little while ago and that kept me thinking and because I would like to document my process as it is right now for myself, because, as you know, processes change as they have to adapt themselves to new requirements. And this year is going to see some change.

In my mind photography should be broken down into the following, equally important steps:

  1. Taking photos (we call that “shooting”)
  2. Initial edit (we call that “initial edit”)
  3. Work print printing (…erm…)
  4. Final edit
  5. Final printing
  6. Exhibition (we call that “selling out”)

This fundamental division of steps can be applied to other arts as well. By the end of this series I also hope to have you convinced that all steps are equally important and cannot be skipped or half-a**ed. But for today I’ll focus on number one.

Taking Photos

I will skip over the technical aspects of how to take a good photo. There are about a billion blogs and books and classes and flickrers on the topic and whatever I’d tell you would probably not help you anyway. As one of my teachers used to say: “Your technique is always as good as it needs to be,” meaning if something bugs you and you don’t get the photo you want, you’ll figure it out. So go figure! What I find interesting is the mental mode you put yourself in when photographing. This is different for every person. Everyone has their own formula. This has changed a lot for me over the last few years and shall be discussed here.

Subject Oriented Shooting

I started off by looking for certain subjects, content (children, buildings, etc.) and then, once found, would build the image from there. I would also bitch about no earthquake or revolution or something similarly dramatic happening in San Francisco as that would clearly help with my artistic endeavor. How can you take interesting photos if there is nothing interesting to take the photo of? So the photos were subject oriented.

My Funnies series is an example, though I did it at a later point and form had become more important. But I think it gets the point across. Like the image above. Note that for certain types of photography this subject driven approach is critical (like documentary, editorial, and advertisement for example) so there is no value judgement here. But let’s keep focusing on me: I then discovered form and modernism in particular and everything changed.

Brain Driven Modernism

As I learnt about form and shape, I fully embraced modernism and the work of my heroes, such as Andre Kertesz, Saul Leiter, Harry Callahan, Ralph Gibson, and others (I’ll have to do a full post on these guys at some point). The subject of the photo started to move to the background, but not disappear, and I focused on putting images together. Like the photo above from the Chicago series. It obviously is of buildings and some metallic structure (the L if you must know), but the photo is all about the shapes, lines, light, and dark and the space all of them create in the context of the buildings.

I did that for several years, going off on different tangents. I would go out and search for a subject matter like “light and shadow”, “buildings”, etc. and build my image from the shapes and forms I observed. While in this stage I went into a few different directions like more organic vs. inorganic shapes and similar, but I won’t bore you with those. All of my following series were done during this time: Days at Peace, Dream Capture, and Chicago. I call this Brain Driven Modernism, because I still consciously approached my subject matter and consciously put the visual elements together to an image. The Public Affair series became a transitional series into the current phase.

Subconscious Something


This is my current way of working. I don’t have a better description for it as I am still in the middle of it and am still figuring out what it means and how it works. Hindsight is always 20/20. Well, I’m at 20/200 here and need glasses. But here is what I know. And it’s exciting. At the end of last year I started shooting without thinking about the subject matter at all. I would eliminate distractions by turning off my cell phone and putting on my headphones with familiar music blasting, and then slowly walk the city at night. Walk REALLY slowly and you’ll see everything!

I react to the visuals I see. Something in me tells me to take a photo of that, exactly that, and nothing else, and I do it. As I said, I still need glasses and can’t explain it better. But here’s an example: I once walked down a street passing at least 20 cars with 20 more to come. I looked at each of them (remember? I walk slowly) and then one stuck out. To be more precise the hubcap did and wanted to be photographed. I obeyed and it turned into a wonderful photo (above). And that’s how it goes all the time.

You end up taking photos of pretty much anything that appeals. And the crazy thing is that the images, regardless of subject, work together. No longer are the groups of photos of e.g. buildings, or the city, or people on the street, so of a given subject. Now a photo of a guy’s greasy hair is next to an empty store in Chinatown next to something metallic but you don’t even know what it is. It’s not that the subject is not important – the greasy hair guy photo is still also about exactly how nasty greasy the hair gets. But it’s also about an emotional layer I lack the words to explain. The work is held together by that deeper, personal subconscious something that wants to get out (and also by some technical consistency). And for the first time my work is truly important to me. When I saw the first prints I knew immediately that these are the photos I always wanted to take. No joke.

Everything before has lead me to this and I couldn’t have gotten here without the other projects. Before I ramble on and on, because trust me: I could… for a long time…, let me only tell you that I am excited, that this is only the beginning, and that this is why I am taking a year off: because I want to know where this leads. This has been started with my¬†Provoked series.

Oh, and if someone asks what I do (since I was unable to provide clarity in this post), do what I do: shrug your shoulders, say you don’t really know, mumble something about modern abstract photography, and say “but it looks really, really cool.”

If you made it all the way here to the end you are probably either related or a good sport and are either way humoring me. But I hope it was at least somewhat interesting. And you shall be rewarded with a few more Buenos Aires photos below. Boy, I need a serveza now – my mouth is sandpaper dry from all he writing…

Posted in Thoughts by Ernst Bruening on February 24th, 2010 at 10:29 pm.