Iconic Photos

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Family snapshot at an 11th century Khmer ruin.

I’ve had a few “iconic” photos in my amateur photography history. The photos my friends and family all think belong in a museum somewhere. They were not entirely beginner’s luck per se. I was able to capture them because of my background in anthropology which gave me an unquenchable thirst for getting to know people and learning about their cultures, histories and hearts. But I was undisciplined, always shot in auto mode, never wanting to “think” about my photographs.

I was rewarded quite early on when a local art gallery, young in its establishment, graciously and against their own better judgement, accepted a few of my photos in two of their juried art shows. My subject matter was exotic and felt like anthropology pieces, an uncommon achievement for people from the fairly homogenous community that surrounded this gallery. I felt like a real photographer and decided I wanted to pursue this hobby further.

I sent my friend Greg a page full of my photos to look at for his feedback, mainly to know which ones I should try to submit to different galleries or contests. He went through them all, and shared with me that he thought my photos were good but really looked like snapshots. He was perhaps the first person to tell me the truth. That I may have some raw talent, but I was not going to be able to get by without learning the tools of this craft.

Subsequent to this conversation, I saw the works of Heather Evans Smith at a 2014 Snap! Orlando show. I remember standing there, mouth agape, and uncertain that I would ever manage to craft photographs like hers. I aspired to it but did not even know where to begin.

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Buddhist temple in rural Thailand.

It seemed that my biggest challenge was to not get overwhelmed by the technical aspects of photography when taking pictures. I approached photography as I would any art form — with my whole heart. I didn’t want to worry about ISO’s and shutter speed and apertures. I just wanted to look through the viewfinder and go. And perhaps my anthropology skills of connecting with people and cultures, and detecting patterns in the world, would serve me well enough to capture shots that still made people pause, even if it was the subject matter and not the technical content of the photos.

But one evening, while visiting family in rural Thailand, I had the photo op of a lifetime. And my lack of skills ruined the shot. It was late in the day, barely sunset, the sky still warm with oranges and pinks. Monks tatted from the neck down with Buddhist symbols and ancient Sanskrit letters, were hand calligraphing prayers onto a gas-fueled paper lantern which they would then release into the sky. No one but locals were here — and the crowd had already dispersed. It was me, a few relatives and this almost still, beautiful scene that was laid out before us.

I had my camera set to auto, as was my usual MO, and snapped away. The flash went off every single time, but I had no idea what this meant photography wise. When I uploaded the photos, which I was sure would make me National Geographic famous, my heart sunk. The flash made it look like it was 2 PM, not sunset. And I didn’t shoot in raw so there was not enough data to attempt to correct the photo in Photoshop (assuming I even knew how to use Photoshop beyond using the lasso tool to put my friends’ heads on celebrity bodies). My lack of discipline could not make up for any natural artistic talent.

When I attempted to correct this by enlisting friends to teach me how to use my camera, I quickly became overwhelmed, unable to process what they were saying while distracted by the gorgeous scenes we were not capturing because we were worried about shutter speed and ISO. The minute they would walk away, I would quickly slide my camera back to auto mode and call it a day. Eventually I decided to become an iPhone photographer, shelving my camera, because the iPhone takes reasonably good photos and has basically no learning curve. Photography, like painting and drawing and writing and any other talent I showed promise in, would be relegated to a basic level, and with iPhone editing apps and Instagram filters, I got the endorphin rush I needed from feedback from friends who thought my photos were “good enough for their Facebook profile”, and turned my interests to something new that I would no doubt abandon once it got hard.

But then in the fall of 2016, when doing a life inventory, I realized that here I was, 42 years old, and basically not very good at anything. I was no further along in any craft than I had been at 22. A dear friend had been promoted to a junior executive position at one of the most influential companies in the world, and here I was, taking iPhone photos. I needed to no longer be content with my mediocrity.

I dusted off my DSLR camera, enrolled in a 4 hour workshop, took notes this time, and left determined to start with aperture priority, so that at the very least, the next time I found myself in a rural Thai village at sunset, surrounded by tatted monks scrawling prayers on gas-fueled paper lanterns, I would be ready.

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